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How bigoted is Brexit? Why valuing your community doesn't make you racist

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

December 4, 2018   5 mins

A couple of miles from where I live, in north-east London, there is a suburb called Stamford Hill. It is notable for its ultra-orthodox Jewish community, the Haredi. They’re amazingly visible, whenever we drive through it on our way to Victoria Park or wherever we are going. The men wear large, furred, broad-brimmed hats, and dark robe-like coats; they have ringlets falling from their sideburns. The women dress in sober, old-fashioned blouses and cardigans. Their children largely go to private, single-sex religious schools; their primary language is Yiddish. There are around 20,000 of them in Stamford Hill.

The Haredi first arrived in Britain in the late 19th century. Most immigrant communities that have been around for that long blend into the wider national life – there was a lengthy wave of Irish immigration to Britain at around the same time, for instance, and Archway, also in north London, had a large Irish community. Now the great-grandsons and great-granddaughters of those immigrants are distinguished, usually, only by their surnames.

But the Haredi have worked hard to maintain their distinction. Most don’t have televisions or the internet, many read only Haredi-produced local newspapers. Marriage is within the community, usually arranged. It’s like entropy: if you unplug a fridge, it slowly reverts to the same temperature as the room around it. It needs to work to maintain its difference. The Haredi, deliberately, put that work in.

I sometimes think about the Haredi when I read people saying that because immigration is economically positive (which, almost entirely, it is), the only reason to oppose it is bigotry. I’ve seen the argument a few times; the latest is by Matthew D’Ancona, who is a clever and fair-minded writer, in the Guardian. D’Ancona rightly points out that surveys have shown that anxiety about immigration drove the Brexit vote, and says that this shows that a large percentage of Britons “just don’t much like people of foreign extraction, and certainly don’t want many more of them around the place”.

Changing their way of life – allowing the internet, opening their community up to outsiders – would undoubtedly be good for the Haredi, economically. But it would open them up to the social entropy they’ve worked so hard to counteract. Are they bigoted for doing so?

Honestly: I don’t know. It depends, in large degree, on what your definition of “bigoted” is. It is worth noting that a few years ago Haredi three-year-olds were being given school-produced sheets describing non-Jews as “evil” and claiming the “goyim” wanted to kill all Jews, which certainly raises a few red flags with me.

But I think it’s a bit much to say that bigotry is the only possible reason that they could want to keep themselves separate from wider British society. As this fascinating 2011 profile by the Telegraph’s Mick Brown shows, the Haredi are a close-knit and mutually supportive community; I can understand a fear that any changes to their lifestyle might be damaging.

Comparing white Britons to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is inevitably going to raise some eyebrows. The ethnic majority in a country has power and influence in a way that a tiny, niche religious subculture does not. But I think the Stamford Hill experience works as a sort of microcosmic analogy.

A couple of years ago, I did some interviews for a piece that never got published, about how accent and dialect affect our life chances. One of the people I interviewed was a fascinating, brilliant man who had grown up in a very working-class village in the North-West. In his 30s, after working for years as a postman, he ended up becoming a teacher and then getting a PhD in sociolinguistics. Eventually he decided he preferred the working-class life and became a lorry driver. I had been researching the piece expecting to write about how important it is that posh ‘RP’ speakers like me drop our prejudice against non-standard dialects, and I did, to some extent.

But I also found out, in a classic case of Posh Metropolitan Journalist Writing About The Northern Working Class As Though They’re A Remote Amazonian Tribe, that accent prejudice goes both ways. He had kept his Lancastrian accent throughout his career, which had made it harder to find work in middle-class professions such as teaching. But, he said, without it, he would have been perceived as less authentic by his peers. Your accent marks you as having solidarity with your area. Being authentically local is important for acceptance in many working-class communities. Like the Haredi, these communities actively do the work to prevent social entropy, the slow process of homogenisation.

This, to me, suggests a possible reason for being wary of immigration that is neither economic nor straightforwardly bigoted. Immigrants, by definition, are not ‘authentically local’. If a place has a distinct local character, and then people from outside move in in large numbers, the distinct local character will probably change. That doesn’t matter to me, at all, but I live in London, where change is the only constant; most people move here for a few years at the start of their career and then move on. That’s not true of the sort of villages where my lorry-driving PhD friend grew up.

There’s another reason that’s been floated to me as well. I spoke recently to a Conservative MP who argued, passionately, that an influx of hard-working, talented Eastern European migrants had made it harder for struggling local people in his constituency to get work. “Why would a local construction firm hire John, my constituent who’s just come out of prison for a second time, when they can get a Romanian guy with a PhD for the same money?” If the Romanian PhD wasn’t there, he said, they’d have to hire John and help rehabilitate him. I think that MP was wrong – I think he is committing the Lump of Labour fallacy, and that hiring the Romanian PhD would end up with more work available for John. But his reasoning, surely, was not bigoted; as an MP, he has duties to his constituents, not to people currently living in Romania.

Obviously there are reasons that people reject immigration which are unambiguously bigoted – there really are racists who don’t like brown people. But there are also people who are worried about their local community staying the same. That means, by the simple working of logic, that they would be wary about new people moving into it, whether those people are from Kent or Sri Lanka. Looking at it this way, too, might partly explain the phenomenon that places with the least immigration are often the places most worried about it. The Haredi probably have the least social mixing of any community in Britain, and yet they’re the most worried about it. It’s not a paradox from this angle.

Some of the Haredi, by the way, are having to leave Stamford Hill. It’s too expensive there, so young families can’t afford the rent or the mortgage: to maintain the super-tight-knit, ultra-managed community that they want, 100 families have decided to up sticks and move to Canvey Island in Essex.

The analogy is too convenient not to use. It’s really hard to keep an economically viable community if you cut all your ties to the outside world. The bits around you, which keep those ties, will outperform you. It’s understandable to want to maintain your old ways of life, to guard your still little pool from the churning waters outside, but it ends up costing you. Obviously, for the Haredi, that price is worth paying.

Perhaps there’s a similar thought process going on when some British people reject immigration. You can think – I do think – that they’re wrong, that Brexit is a terrible idea, and that immigration is a good thing. But it does show that bigotry is not the only reason you could possibly want to choose low immigration over economic growth.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.


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john freeman
john freeman
3 years ago

I focus on the repetition of “staggering”. I know it does not mean unstable: but I decline to rock on my feet when someone tells a fib.

Jeff Mason
Jeff Mason
3 years ago

“No one cares if progressives don’t practise what they preach ” so long as what they’re preaching is good.” The author, by excusing progressive hypocrisy, misses a couple really big points. First, if what they are ‘preaching’ is so good, while don’t they do it? The conclusion is that it isn’t so good in the first place. If flying on a private jet or driving an SUV will destroy the Earth, do those climate activists who fly in private jets actually want to destroy the Earth or do they simply not really believe what they preach? I suspect the latter. Virtue signaling just makes them feel smarter or more relevant. I drive an SUV (Jeep) but then I think global warming is nonsense. Many will call me stupid or a denier but I don’t care. I know the Earth has been heating and cooling for billions of years so the current warming trend (which is still way, way below historical averages) doesn’t concern me. All because we are around to see it this time does not make it more significant. Second, if what they are preaching is good (true), then their hypocrisy is dangerous. When you advocate a strict lockdown to protect against a dangerous disease and then violate that lockdown, it tells people the disease is not so dangerous after all – like Biden telling people they must all wear a mask on federal property while NOT wearing a mask on federal property. Hypocrisy is not just funny.