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View from the street: Immigration, integration and aspiration

Anna Dickens
Associate partner

Last week, Suella Braverman manged to draw the ire of a number of people, from Elton John to the Rwandan ambassador. Perhaps she set out to do so but, more problematically for her, the home secretary also upset her boss, Rishi Sunak.

As an LGBTQ+ immigrant, I took issue with much of what Braverman said in Washington DC, but what I found most fascinating was her assertion that “multiculturalism makes no demands of the incomer to integrate”. There is a lot to unpick there but let’s begin with a reminder that as home secretary it is literally within her power to make demands on incomers to the UK.

Braverman criticised international asylum agreements and complained that some immigrants have failed to integrate into British culture and are living “parallel lives”. Her speech was delivered in my native country, which is sometimes called “the melting pot”. This metaphor was taught to me in primary school as a way of understanding how our culture developed as a nation founded by immigrants. Each group brought their customs and traditions, melting together to create something new and wonderful that bubbles away and continues to evolve.

Not everyone in America is keen on new ingredients being added to the mix and it is entirely possible that Betsy DeVos changed that part of the curriculum during her tenure as secretary of education. But the melting pot analogy gets to the heart of the questions we might expect Braverman should be asking in her role. Why do some immigrants find it difficult to integrate? Are we holding Britain back because we are scared of letting our culture evolve? Can the immigration process encourage cultural education and integration?

Brits are not exactly renowned for their own cultural integration when travelling abroad. Just look at the history of the British Empire or count the number of signs advertising full English breakfasts when you’re holidaying in Spain. The reason is simple; it’s hard to fully integrate into a different culture.

A couple weeks ago I became a British citizen. Achieving this significant milestone after living in the UK for nine years has caused me to reflect on my own cultural integration, which has involved gaffes galore. Many times have I wished for a guide to explain to me the basics about life in this country.

Famously, there is a life in the UK test, which I suspect most native Brits would fail miserably. The test is based on the latest edition of the book, Life in the United Kingdom, which I recommend to any trivia enthusiasts curious about the distance between Land’s End and John o’Groats or the height of the London Eye. I appreciate the intention, but the problem is that you read the book and take the test at the end of your immigration journey, not the beginning. At that point, you have already worked out both how to be useful and what’s useful to know.

Braverman should stop blaming the concept of multiculturalism for the failings of the UK immigration system. It should be within her gift as home secretary to make it work and improve the system. As her party gathers for its conference, however, many commentators believe last week’s speech betrays the fact that Braverman is focused not on the job at hand, but one to which she aspires. Perhaps her performance last week was simply about ensuring maximum attention when she addresses the Conservative party tomorrow.


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