In the Daily Telegraph today, Boris begins: “I am more than usually bleary-eyed this morning, having spent a dark night of the soul. What kind of a Conservative am I, anyway, I asked myself, at about 3am, as the last chunderings and barrackings died away in the street. Am I a Hayekian free-market liberal? Or am I a cultural conservative? A fox barked. A tin can rattled down the pavement – and sleep continued to elude me. I tossed and turned and grappled for the answer.
It all depends, you see, on your instinctive response to the planning policies of a certain Left-wing Labour council. There is a chap I know who has just got married, and who wants to watch satellite television – cricket and so on. He needs to put a dish, an aerial, on the exterior wall of his flat. The Lefty council in question has told him that he may not do this, because in their snooty opinion the dish would be an eyesore.
There is, however, one way that he could secure the right to install the device. According to the letter from the council, they might show mercy if he could demonstrate that he had “social needs”. And what, he has asked the council, do they mean by “social needs”? Well, he has been told, he might need to watch programmes in a foreign language. He might be at risk of “social exclusion” unless he is able to watch a regular diet of Bangladeshi soaps or Turkish cookery shows or Blind Date in Serbo-Croat.
You mean to say, I asked my friend, that if you can prove that you have a “social need” to watch programmes in any language other than English, then you can go ahead and whack up the dish; and yet if you want to watch the Ashes, in English, you may not? That, said my friend, was about the size of it. And at this point I am afraid I saw red.
London is perhaps the most cosmopolitan city on earth; there are 300 languages spoken on the streets, and the recent waves of immigration have unquestionably added to the cultural and commercial dynamism of the capital. Of the 8.6 million people in London (and growing fast) 38 per cent were born abroad – probably the highest proportion since Roman times.
That is, I suppose, a tribute to London’s attractiveness as a place to live, and to the success of an economy that now contributes about a quarter of UK GDP. The question is: what sort of society do we want – a society that is integrated, or one that is balkanised? Do we let people live and work in mutually segregated sub-cultures? Or do we insist on the primacy of the English language?
My instinctive answer is clear. I think we should insist absolutely on English as the common language – though I can see that this immediately raises some ideological difficulties; and it was this conundrum that was causing my brain to race last night.
If you are a classical free-market liberal, you think that the state on the whole should butt out of things. You believe that people have a right to live their own lives, within the law. You think – along with J S Mill and others – that provided people are doing nothing to harm anyone else, they should be able to eat whatever food they like, wear whatever clothes they like, and speak whatever language they choose. Why should government go around telling people what language to speak? What business is it of the state?
A true free-marketeer might hold that individuals should be left to make their own choices, on the grounds that they are likely to be the best judges of their own interests. And when it comes to imposing a common language, we English-firsters must accept that there are inconsistencies in our approach. From Shanghai to Mumbai to Dubai, there are vast communities of British expats around the world – with large numbers unable to string together a sentence of Chinese or Hindi or Arabic.
How would they feel if they were told, in a finger-wagging way, that they had to speak the local language? They would say it was tyrannical, and bossy, and that they could manage very well with a few pidgin phrases. So what gives us, in Britain, the right to insist on the primacy of this country’s language, when Brits overseas face no such moral imperative?
That is the dilemma I wrestled with – and yet there are several reasons why I reject the libertarian approach. The first is that I feel – passionately and perhaps obscurely – that if people are going to benefit from this country’s lavish welfare state, they should at least make an effort to speak the national language.
With the help of an interpreter I was talking recently to a nice Turkish chap who wanted a different council house – his current one had too many stairs, he complained. He had been here for 15 years, it turned out. Fifteen years! English is not an especially difficult language. If he wants us to pay for his blooming house, he should at least get a grip on the lingo.
The next reason is of course that in many communities there are people – especially women – who are not able to take part in the economy because they simply don’t speak English well enough. That is why we have put more money into teaching English in London for “speakers of other languages”. Helping people to speak English is not so much an act of cultural imperialism as of economic liberation.
But the final reason why I think we should insist on English is unashamedly emotional, atavistic, and culturally conservative. This is our language, the language of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, the language that has been spoken in London for centuries; and in the face of the vast migratory influx we have seen, we must insist on English if we are to have any hope of eupeptic absorption and assimilation.And it is therefore utterly insane that councils pursue television aerial policies that discriminate against those who want to watch programmes in English, and in favour of those who can now live in a foreign-language bubble. They should scrap that bias now.