Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 2 March 2024


Political correctness has suppressed debate on migration we must have

The Sunday Times

There’s a video circulating on social media involving a debate between two of the most articulate Englishmen of the past half century. Jonathan Miller performed for Beyond the Fringe as a young man and would go on to become one of our nation’s few polymaths: physician, philosopher, director of operas and presenter of a wonderful series on atheism for the BBC, which gripped me and my mum when it came out in 2004.

Enoch Powell, more infamous these days, was a right-wing Conservative who held ministerial office in the Macmillan government but left the party after his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. Powell — a prophet to some, a demagogue to others — warned that rapid immigration from what he called “alien societies” could unravel British social fabric and, in time, lead to civil conflict.

The man interviewing (perhaps observing would be a better word) these two men was Dick Cavett, a softly spoken American chat show host whose own life is fascinating in its own way, but I digress. What was at stake in their conversation from the vantage point of 1971 was the future of Britain, perhaps the future of the West itself. With people on the move, with those from former colonies and beyond wishing to travel to richer nations, what would happen to western civilisation?

It feels like a poignant moment to revisit the Powell-Miller debate: one that, frankly, never went away even if political correctness suppressed it for far too long. Last week, it took on particular urgency when the prime minister — the Hindu son of Indian-descent immigrants — used the stage of Downing Street to warn against national disunity. Rishi Sunak painted a picture of a nation fraying, pulled one way by right-wing extremism and the other by Islamism and antisemitism.

Powell would I suspect feel vindicated by Sunak’s address. In that debate with Miller, he predicted that if immigrants continued to arrive in big numbers, they would seek to recreate their own communities in their new home, separated from the wider society. He argued that this would be resented by “indigenous people” and could, if unchecked, lead to a rise in the far right.


Miller — in perhaps more careful language — acknowledged many of Powell’s premises but disputed his conclusion. He argued that social ­ co-operation is difficult, that ethnic frictions are inevitable, but that in the great arc of human history, it is those civilisations that have encouraged peaceful coexistence that have reaped the rewards. He finished with gentle advice for Powell: “Instead of exciting the notion of future strife, you should encourage the notion of future co-operation on the basis of understanding.”

I come to this debate — one of the most important we face — with what some might call “baggage”. The interview took place a few months after my birth, the result of a union between a Pakistani immigrant and a red-headed girl from a Welsh farming community. And so for the 53 years of my life, I have had a singular vantage point to witness the evolution of British culture, consciousness and anxiety.

And perhaps I might say this: I think both Powell and Miller were right, in their own ways. Powell was prophetic in spotting the dangers of parallel lives. The scholar Patrick Nash has written about Islamic communities “concentrated in small geographical areas spread across a few streets or nearby neighbourhoods where there is little need or opportunity to have much to do with wider society or practise the English language”. This has been a disaster for the UK and, indeed, for these groups whose children (particularly daughters) have not experienced the rich opportunities Britain has to offer.

But Miller was right — so very right — when he talked about the contribution made by immigrants who have integrated: Muslims, Hindus, blacks, browns. When I look at modern Britain, I see this writ large. It is strange that some talk about endemic racism when every report reveals that we are one of the most successful societies on earth and where people from ethnic minority backgrounds lead the government, the home office, the BBC and more.

Perhaps the key question, then, is: what facilitates integration? What leads to a nation pulling together and shaping the future? And here I think we need to dig a little deeper into history to glimpse an answer. Christianity and Islam are arguably the two religions that have most shaped the world in the past millennium and a half. These creeds differ in theology and iconography but a key difference is in marriage practices.

In many iterations of Islam, people marry within their tribe or baradari. They worship the same god but their lives are dominated by the kinship group (the Sunni-Shia dispute is, at bottom, a conflict based on which tribe should have taken over from the prophet). This kind of “endogamous” marriage, typically between cousins, maintains a clear demarcation between one’s in-group and everyone else. Your children remain in the clan, creating continuity of property and ideology.

And this isn’t merely about history and foreign practice. A recent paper by Nash suggests between 38 per cent and 59 per cent of British Pakistanis marry first cousins; Alison Shaw, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford, has noted the rate may be rising. Some have rightly worried about the birth defects caused by “consanguinity” but we have missed how the practice is the fundamental instrument of cultural sequestration. This may benefit the patriarchs who dominate these groups but it impoverishes their communities.

This, may I suggest, should be our focus. Yes, we should limit immigration and asylum to rational levels that have been consistently breached by this government. But if we want to resolve the dispute between Powell and Miller, we need to understand why some immigrants integrate, excel and become magnificent contributors to British culture while others languish in poverty, cut off from society, their votes collated into blocks controlled by clan leaders (another scandal barely mentioned in polite political debate), and where Islamism and antisemitism fester.


I have argued in this space before that an answer is to ban cousin marriage, a prohibition that has been shown to increase integration and economic growth in almost every society on earth. A ban issued by the early Christian church (but which lapsed during the Restoration era) forced the tribes of post-Roman Britain to intermarry, dissolving divisions and paving the way for a true national identity. Scholars such as Joe Henrich argue that it was the secret of our rise as a great power.

You see, when my dad married my mum, he didn’t just start a family; he also built a bridge between two communities — and the closer he came to British society and values, the more he became their champion.

This, I believe, is the answer to our predicament. We need more bridges, more pathways, more ways to understand each other. We also need greater intolerance towards those who strive to divide us. I am not just talking about Islamic patriarchs (it is one of the great “liberal” failures that this task was ducked due to fear of causing offence) but dog-whistling politicians such as George Galloway and Lee Anderson who inflame ethnic tensions. One also thinks of the London theatre which last week said that it would hold performances solely for “black-identifying” people because of the evils of “white gaze”.

I suspect that most Brits are sick of this nonsense, sick of the retreat from judging people on character, sick of the trend towards sectarianism in all its guises. We are living through a strange and perilous moment. It’s time for reasonable people from all communities to unite — and call out the growing army of dividers.

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