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Communities need to digest foreign migrants. Give them a little at a time, allow them to chew slowly and the delicate system that is a community will cope. Ram too much down their throats and the overwhelmed system will reject the lot.

That, basically, sums up part of the Conservative Party’s approach to community cohesion as outlined by party leader David Cameron in recent weeks. Expect a Conservative government to impose stricter limits on migration, with an emphasis on admitting the most economically nourishing foreigners.

But is cohesion really about managing quantity and selecting ‘quality’ migrants? Is it about managing perceptions through the media etc? Or is there something intrinsically threatening about people who look, sound and behave differently?

When I was young I had my own theory about community cohesion. It seemed logical: the greatest threat to cohesion was racism; racism was about ignorance and, as ignorance was challenged by experience, rejection and hostility would give way to acceptance and we’d all live happy ever after. In other words I thought community cohesion was inevitable, given time.

Like I said, I was young. The complexities of community cohesion escaped me, just as they appear to be escaping David Cameron.

A Pakistani friend phoned the other week and told me a long-standing white friend was thinking of voting BNP. Maybe he was hoping she’d tell him his concerns about terrorism, unemployment, pressures on the welfare state weren’t racist.

After all if you love something you want to protect it from harm, don’t you? As it was, she simply told him that if he did vote BNP their friendship would be over.

The government’s commission on cohesion and integration, published this week, set out to look at how communities could make the most of diversity and ‘prevent problems, including those caused by segregation and the dissemination of extremist ideologies’.

Such problems are the tip of the iceberg. Extremism, riots and bricks through the window are indicators of problems bubbling below the surface. Policymakers have to concern themselves with attitudes, fears and beliefs - among minorities and indigenous communities alike - that exist even when we’re friends, when we’re not scrapping in the street.

It’s comforting to think migrants will be accepted if you don’t let too many in. It’s comforting to think all will be well if you deal with the extreme views of a hostile minority. It’s comforting to think that in broad daylight you’d know your friends from your enemies. The problem is, it’s just not true.

Susan Downer, New Start Online magazine

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