Book review: This is London by Ben Judah

UK Border, Heathrow

This article was published on Backbench

The arguments made in the media for and against low-skilled immigration normally come from the well-heeled opinion-forming professions, rather than from immigrants themselves. Thus there is a tendency to romanticise or demonise immigrants and their plight: the benefit scrounger, the job stealer, the self-made chaser of a British version of the American Dream. We rarely hear from those who constitute these supposed categories. The main strength of Ben Judah’s This is London is that it gives them a voice. Each chapter involves meeting one or more immigrant, from all over the world and in all sorts of jobs, from beggars to tube workers to carers. The point hammered home, from the title onwards, is that London is now a city of immigrants (the book tells us in the first few pages that at least 55% of Londoners are not ethnically British and that nearly 40% of Londoners were born abroad).

Judah often inserts what his interviewees say directly, without adapting their words or contextualising them with his questions. The answers are often politically incorrect. Many on the left believe in what Bertrand Russell called “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed”. Yet immigrants in the book – victims of racism – believe stereotypes about other ethnic groups, for example that black people cannot be police officers or that they go around on bikes stabbing people.

The lack of integration is one of the points that stands out in the book. London is celebrated for its diversity, its conviviencia, the harmonious co-existence of every type of person under the sun. Yet Judah paints a picture of immigrant groups who may live in physical close proximity to others but in terms of emotional distance may as well be back in their countries of origin. As a Nigerian mental health officer and writer says, “People are living exclusive life based on their families, based on their communities, based on who they perceive as like them”. Perhaps in British middle-class milieus one is more or less colourblind, but throughout the book Judah’s interviewees define people by their race, religion or skin colour.

It is clearly negligent to do nothing to encourage integration, even if it is true that it will occur naturally over time. It may provide more cultural vibrancy and cause fewer short-term conflicts to leave immigrants to their own devices, but it prevents communities forming and goes against our basic values. For example, an East London teacher interviewed by Judah describes how her Muslim pupils are put into arranged marriages. Exactly how to encourage integration is harder. Districts of the city are effectively waiting rooms in a train station, in constant churn due to gentrification and development (one of Judah’s favourite points of discussion is how neighbourhoods have changed over time).

Some chapters focus on the rich: the Russians for whom London is a stop-over; the pampered Gulf princesses; the Nigerian elite. These people are just as disconnected as other immigrants, but deliberately so. It’s a well-played record, but however much tax these people bring into the coffers, they do little else to contribute to Britain and take up valuable space in central London.

A more prickly question is what to do about the immigrant underclass, who live in Victorian levels of poverty. They are completely invisible, undocumented and ripe for exploitation. Eastern Europeans are cramped into doss houses and jostle for sub-minimum wage work on the street corner. Far from the scrounger stereotype, they think it is the English who are pampered (“they think you deserve £2,000 a month for driving the bus. Can you believe it”) and lazy (“living in Spain, getting tanned and fat off the benefits this country gives them for free”). Filipino maids are kept as virtual slaves by super-rich Arab families – when these families travel to their London houses it is the maids’ chance to escape. Romanian beggars live in debt to those who brought them to London, and face a sisyphean task to get free.

Of course, laws in this country exist to prevent this sort of thing from happening. But there is little interest in documenting these people, unless they commit crime. Out of sight, out of mind. It offers an interesting liberal dilemma for those who are automatically pro-immigration. For those people like the beggars Judah camps with in an underpass, it is hard to see how the decision to leave their families and live precariously in London, under the radar and in crippling debt, was a good one. The dreams of riches – the London Dream, as it were – that many immigrants Judah meets seem to believe in (“London is a land of opportunity… you can be anything here”) is always over the rainbow. Taking this into account, the sort of advertising campaigns that tell people in poor countries not to come to Britain no longer seem quite as crude.

What is obvious, particularly in the chapters about low-paid workers, is that labour laws must be tightened up. The well-worn argument that British workers are too lazy to do jobs that immigrants do is only half true. It is not laziness, but an adherence to higher standards of working conditions (through the law and through convention). These standards should be applied to immigrants as well. Otherwise, not only are immigrants exploited, but native workers are undercut.

These are my conclusions from the book, but one of its strengths is that it remains ambiguous in its message, letting its subjects describe their stories without contorting them to make a particular point. With fears over immigration certain to remain whatever the result in the EU Referendum, This is London is a must-read.

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