The God-fearing case for immigration

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The Shree Swaminarayan in north-west London is adorned with lights
The Shree Swaminarayan in north-west London is illuminated to celebrate Diwali, the ‘Festival of Lights’ © Alamy

A very London moment. In passing, a stranger in a bar correctly guesses which secondary city in Sri Lanka I am “from”. We turn out to have maternal ties to the same part of western Malaysia. It doesn’t occur to either of us to say more or swap details. That would be a bit . . . much. Cosmopolitanism is, at heart, an indifference to diversity, not an exaltation of it. And coincidences such as these are meant to be par for the course in a city with a shout as the most international ever. Make an issue of it? We’ll be doing 23andMe tests next.

Sixteen point eight per cent of people in England and Wales are now foreign-born, which is a higher share than the US. (Higher, in fact, than at any point in US history since before the civil war.) In London, the figure is 40 per cent. Both numbers are up since 2011 despite — or because of, or regardless of — the intervening event of Brexit.

There is some conservative angst about this. That is reasonable enough. People are entitled to a view on the composition of their country, and the rate of change. Ever more, though, the moral right has a dilemma on its hands.

Immigration is religion’s last, best prayer in England. Muslims and west African Christians are among those bucking the native trend towards secularisation. Weirdly, but also naturally, London is the most pious region in the land. Just 29 per cent profess No Religion there. In South West England, where the foreign-born share is in the single digits, getting on for half do.

Pressed to say how the texture of urban life has changed since the millennium, I could cite the industrial chic (those concrete dining counters) and the café culture (why is it always a La Marzocco machine?). But the profusion of mostly non-white churches, often in once-monocultural suburbs, stands out.

And it isn’t just religion of the nominal or pro forma kind that immigrants bring. It is a cultural conservatism. It is unbelievable, but borne out by survey data, that on assisted dying, on sex before marriage, on much else, Londoners are likelier to have traditionalist views than the national average. The old trope of the big city as a moral free-for-fall — as Dorian Gray’s corrupter — needs some work. Yes, London is Babylon, but it also contains the opposite of that. Voltaire marvelled that Jews, Christians and Muslims traded with each other here, and gave “the name of infidel to none but bankrupts”. An observant outsider would now be more taken with the co-existence of the faithful, of whichever Abrahamic stripe, with the libertine.

The quandary for conservatives could not be more awkward. Is a nation of non-Christian faith (and where Christian, often non-Anglican) better than a godless one? What in the end matters more, a citizenry that looks and sounds familiar, or one that upholds traditional morals? Because it is not clear from the demographic trends that conservatives can have both. A Ghanaian Adventist or a tenth-generation white English atheist: who is it to be?

The discomfiting questions about immigration used to go the other way. Conservatives asked liberals how they expected to reconcile a big Muslim population with sexual freedom. Or whether taxpayers would fund a welfare state if its beneficiaries didn’t look like them. Neither question was frivolous. The second in particular hasn’t disappeared. But the hard choices — and life isn’t interesting without them — are now at least as much for the right.

And not just in Britain. US Republicans are finding Latin American immigration far from fatal to their electoral prospects. Some of the turn against affirmative action has come not from whites, but from Asians. Miami is the nearest thing I can think of in the western world to a rightwing major city. But the issue is more acute in Britain, which doesn’t have America’s deep reserves of white Christianity. Its choice, increasingly, is whether to be an open nation or an atheist one. In future, if not this Christmas, I wonder if it is conservatives who will ask to be given the tired, the poor, the praying masses.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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