THE other evening I parked in a side street to take a phone call. The spot was close to my old primary school, a street I knew well as a child. Terrace houses, built for the workers who flooded into the town in the late 19th century. If these houses could talk, they would tell a tale of hard slog, family life and changing fortunes.
As I sat there with the window open, I watched a bedraggled little boy make his way up the pavement. He went into a front garden piled high with an old sofa, broken toys, tattered carpet. A sight only too familiar on this kind of streets, these days. The sad detritus of yet another eviction. Out of the house came two skinny men, who leant on the wall and started smoking. The little boy started talking to them. And I couldn’t understand a word any of them said.
I don’t know what nationality they were. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter though is that my home town is changing, literally before my eyes. No-one can put a number on the recent influx of migrants, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South-East Asia and Africa. However, what is clear is that the unity that held this town together through thick and thin is fragmenting.
Different communities are springing up, divided by the languages they speak, the food they eat, the clothes they wear. I know enough of Barnsley’s history to appreciate that it built its identity on waves of migrant workers who turned up here to work first in the linen industry, then coal and glass. Bonds were forged through graft, and suffering. This though, is not integration. This is segregation. And it is making strangers of us all to each other.
Is this what we want for modern Britain, for our region? We are not, and never have been a homogenous nation. We’re an island. Invasion and economic migration characterises us; Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Irish, Russian, Polish, West Indian. What’s happening now is different though. How to say it without sounding intolerant, racist even?
Let’s put it like this. It is not right that within the shelter of our island we should have communities so closed in on each other that those of us outside have no idea of what is happening inside. It is not right that places such as Dewsbury could give birth to a series of jihadi fighters, including 17-year-old Talha Asmal who is believed to be Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. It is not right that three women from Bradford can leave the country unchecked with nine children under the age of 16, reportedly bound for Syria. It is not right that the back-stories to these two current cases alone provide a glimpse into shrouded worlds which many of us have no understanding of whatsoever. It was not right either that in another Yorkshire town, Rotherham, an endemic culture of child abuse was allowed to fester for so long, the authorities either too afraid or too complicit to make a stand.
It is so tricky, isn’t it? In Britain, we cherish personal freedom above all. We respect each other’s right to live as we choose. How though can we call ourselves a civilised and progressive nation when such oppression is happening amongst us, not just in isolated cases, but every day?
This is no time for political correctness. Politicians, at every level, must face up to a situation which threatens to create irrevocable damage. How can beleaguered towns – and I now count Barnsley amongst them – move forward and regenerate when seismic population change is outpacing the carefully-drawn and budgeted plans made by local councils? In Barnsley, for instance, there’s a shiny new town centre about to start construction. I know though that there are people now too afraid to shop in town because of the youths congregating in gangs. Their fears may be unfounded, but if this continues what’s going to happen to economic recovery?
Then there are the pressures on education, on health and social services that such population change brings. Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke only the other day about the importance of instilling British values in schoolchildren to prevent them being lured into Muslim fanaticism. How do we do this when we have countless children in our schools who can’t even speak English? It could be much more acceptable if we could live without suspicion and fear. Unfortunately, the barriers erected by language, culture and religion drive insurmountable wedges between us.
We hear so much about “community”. Yet how can we stand behind politicians who say we should all pull together, when we know that we are living side by side with strangers who want to keep that way? I’m sorry if this sounds blunt, but take a walk down a street such as the one I parked in the other evening. For every little boy like the one I saw, you will see a disaffected young man, a blind go down, a world shut off. Is that what we want for a country whose freedom is supposedly the envy of the world?