Yesterday John Cleese tweeted from his home in the Caribbean that London was not really an English city any more.
London is the greatest city in the world for a number of reasons. I moved to our capital city for the opportunities and lifestyle that only London can provide. I moved from another UK town but London attracts people from around the world who add so much to our economy, our culture and our communities.
John Cleese may believe that London is no longer an English city but how do we define English? It may not be the first choice of a location scout for Midsomer Murders but was London ever like that? The English borrow and adapt from around the world mainly on the back of being a maritime trading island. It is true that London plays in a global league, competing against the likes of New York, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, much like Liverpool and Tottenham will be vying to be Champions of Europe which will trump Manchester City’s Premiership title. But that doesn’t make London any less connected with the rest of the UK.
Britishness can now be defined by our shared values; tolerance, respect, pragmatism and resourcefulness especially in difficult times. Londoners don’t worry about whether their neighbours have three generations behind them living within the neighbourhood before accepting them. Instead we welcome newcomers, recognising how change helps us to keep up to date and fresh, just like any sensible business, club or family.
This does not mean that we should not have a robust immigration policy. The failure to even allow reasonable debate about immigration under the last Labour government, stirred up concern and unrest, some of which fed into the Brexit debate. We need a fairer immigration system which attracts people with the skills we need, no matter where they are from.
Entrepreneurs and skilled workers should be able to contribute to the UK and make the most of opportunities whether they are from India, America or France.
Ending Freedom of Movement as we leave the EU will allow us to strike the right balance but in doing so we should not allow commentators to conflate this with rhetoric that just perpetuates division. People are rightly concerned about how our hospitals and schools will cope with an increasing population but they are also worried about how they will be staffed. We need to concentrate on getting the balance right in a positive, constructive debate rather than alienating people whose first language may not be English, whose skin colour may be different or whose faith may not be Church of England.
That’s the tolerance and pragmatism that makes me English, some 67 years after my Catholic Burmese father with an Irish surname disembarked at Southampton docks to start a new life away from military dictatorship, in England, the country that he had admired from afar.