Point of View

What the United Kingdom could learn from Canada

Canada inherited its government, system of law and much more from the United Kingdom. It's time for the United Kingdom to consider our approach to multiculturalism and immigration, writes former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall.

Immigration may be unpopular in Britain - but Conservatives there should embrace it, writes Andrew MacDougall

One thing that seemingly unites the United Kingdom these days is concern over immigration. But British Prime Minister David Cameron would do well to follow the lead of Canada's Conservative Party and recognize immigrants as a natural and advantageous constituency, writes former PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall. (Yves Logghe/Associated Press)

It's Dominion Day, the time we bust out the clichés over what makes Canada so great.

We Canadians love to define ourselves by what we're not, and spending the better part of a year in a truly world-class city (London) surrounded by a union having an identity crisis (the U.K.) has certainly sharpened my appreciation for what makes Canada tick.

One of the best things about being a Canadian is the ability to be culturally schizophrenic. In my case, having grown up in an English household, and having been steered into French immersion by my father (once an ardent Trudeau man, now rehabilitated), my Canadian identity has always included our French heritage. And I'm the better for it.

But I'm also a Brit. My mum was born and raised in west London and immigrated to Canada just as Carnaby Street was set to swing. In many ways it feels like home, but in others, it feels like another planet.

Yes, Canada and the United Kingdom share the same style of government and systems of law, the same head of state and many cultural touchstones. But there are differences.

Some of these differences are fun. Reading the British press, for example, is like being in the lunatic asylum after spending years in the Canadian palliative care ward.

We share a language, but the terminology will trip you up if you're not careful. For example, never tell someone you like their pants over here. They'll punch you in the bollocks (which, incidentally, are housed in your "pants," i.e. underwear).
While we're at it, the fanny is the front, not the back; eggplant is aubergine; and a fall is something you take, not the season of autumn.

On the political front, there are some similarities. For example, no one is allowed to discuss reform of the health care system, preferring instead to punt the discussion until after it craters into the bankrupt ground.

United in opposition

As with Canada, there's also no serious debate here about immigration because everyone is united in a common position. But unlike Canada, everyone here is against it, or at least for restricting it to low levels.
Nigel Farage, leader of UK Independence Party. Farage's anti-immigration party out-polled Cameron's Conservative Party and the Labour Party in May elections for the European Parliament. (Sang Tan/Associated Press)

Hence the cross-party fear of Polish plumbers, Spanish service staff, Romanian labourers and Canadian managers. Okay, we Canadians aren't in the crosshairs, but we do run the post and the bank here, so our time will surely come.

The resistance to immigration and immigrants stems from something Canada has in spades, and of which Britain has very little: distance.

When a country like Albania or Romania is accepted into the European Union, their citizens are eligible to live and work in Britain virtually straight away. Cue the Nigel Farage. (Farage led his nationalist, anti-immigration UK Independence Party to the strongest national showing in recent European Parliament elections.)

Leave aside the fact the British economy needs the bodies or that new arrivals claim fewer benefits than native-born Brits because they came here with the express purpose of, you know, working. No, every political leader will spend the run-up to next year's general election channelling their inner Enoch Powell.

As with many things in the United Kingdom, there is a split between London and the rest of the country. London, which bustles with the industry, culture and cuisine of immigrants, is understandably on board with new arrivals. But out there in the rest of the country, the places where the economy isn't recovering, there is a desire to draw the bridge and keep England for Englanders.

And where separatism in Canada is at such an ebb the Bloc Québécois just selected a complete non-entity to lead it, here in the United Kingdom, Scotland is preparing a referendum on its more than 300-year-old political union with  England, and the result is very much in question. Add to that the broader debate about the U.K.'s role in the funhouse of the European Union, and you have a country that could be facing radically different circumstances in just two years.

Cameron should look to Harper

Yes, some of the political angst over Europe has to do with intrusive regulation and the loss of national sovereignty, but the majority of it has to do with the free movement of people and the mythical masses of the unwashed that are supposedly coming to threaten Britain's culture and identity. Neutralizing the fear of the outsider would put Britain on much surer footing.

The David Cameron-led Conservatives could do worse than to look over and see how the Harper government has reached out to immigrant communities. Hard-working, family-oriented and fiercely proud of their new land, these communities should be a natural constituency. Cameron should stare down the little Englanders in his party and make the case for immigration and the economy.

I wouldn't change much about my mother's country, but its attitude to immigrants would certainly be one. In this, it needs to become more Canadian.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall

About the Author

Andrew MacDougall

Andrew MacDougall is a Canadian-British national based in London who writes about politics and current affairs. He was previously director of communications for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.


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