There are few countries in the world where the people have been as open and welcoming to immigrants — like my family — as modern Britain.
Over recent decades, our society has absorbed huge numbers of newcomers with remarkably little strife.
That willingness to embrace the changing face of the nation was demonstrated only last week by the election of my friend Sadiq Khan as the Mayor of London, a victory that saw him become the first Muslim to lead a European capital.
But before we smother ourselves in self-congratulation, we need to recognise that this fine liberal tradition is now under profound strain.
We are in the midst of an astonishing demographic revolution, one that threatens to overwhelm our civic infrastructure, undermine our democratic values and weaken our social cohesion.
Unprecedented levels of immigration are transforming our society. And behind the diversity which many celebrate lies the grim possibility of future discord and division.
Of course we are miles away from the predictions of Enoch Powell, who poisoned all open debate about race and religion for decades when he spoke of the River Tiber foaming with much blood.
But as I put it in a paper about race relations, published this week by the think-tank Civitas: ‘Rome may not yet be in flames, but I think I can smell the smouldering whilst we hum to the music of liberal self-delusion.’
I added the warning that ’squeamishness about addressing diversity risks allowing our country to sleepwalk to a catastrophe that will set community against community’.
Such words are likely to be seen as a form of heresy among many of my London-based friends. Metropolitan elites, who live a cheerfully cosmopolitan life, are always aghast at any challenge to the orthodoxy of multiculturalism.
But the denial of our political and media classes is endangering the very fine balance between tolerance and unity which holds our diverse society together. What we need is realism, not wishful thinking. As the son of immigrants, I have spent much of my career fighting racial discrimination and injustice, most notably during my spell as the first chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
To this day, I remain a firm supporter of immigration, understanding that new arrivals not only fulfil a vital economic need, but also add to the richness of our culture.
But that doesn’t blind me to the truth that we are struggling to cope. As I travel through the UK, I am daily made aware of the strains that accelerating immigration has brought.
For example, as chairman of the Workers’ Educational Association, I regularly meet people in the North and Midlands of England, of all backgrounds, who are bewildered by the change they see around them.
Decent and hard-working, they are not prejudiced, but they are exasperated by the problems of trying to get an appointment at their doctors’ surgery, or a place for their child at the local school.
On top of these frustrations, they are puzzled by the apparent reluctance of some migrants to mix socially outside of their neighbourhoods — or even learn the English language.
That experience is shared by the people of Shirebrook, a Derbyshire colliery town which, as this paper reported on Saturday, is now filled with Poles attracted by work at the local base of the Sports Direct chain.
One resident told the paper: ‘Don’t get me wrong, I like Polish people. There are just too many here — the schools, the healthcare, they are not designed to cope with these numbers.’
Shirebrook, en kulmine-by i Derbyshire, er nu fyldt med polakker tiltrukket af arbejdet på den lokale tøj-producenten Sports Direct.
Meanwhile, a local police officer admitted that ‘the rapid rise in population has put real strains on the town’s facilities’.
It is not remotely racist to have such anxieties. There is nothing bigoted about feelings of despair at the unsustainable pressures on the NHS, or the public transport network, or the supply of housing. It is natural to feel disturbed about terrorism and extremism.
Yet our liberal elite, bound up in a cocoon of moral superiority, pretend that any problems with diversity should be blamed only on white racism.
They treat ordinary people’s concerns about the costs of diversity as narrow-minded ignorance to be dealt with by censorship or re-education.
My parents came here in the Fifties and though they too faced discrimination, they found their way into British life — and instilled in their six children a loyalty to this country and its ways.
But today’s immigration to Britain is completely different in scale and character to anything that happened before 2000.
In the past year alone, 617,000 migrants arrived here, though this may be a severe underestimate since official figures also show that 828,000 National Insurance numbers were given out to foreign nationals.
The annual influx is more than 100 times higher than the levels of the Fifties, when the first waves of Commonwealth immigration really began.
The record-breaking numbers are creating a society characterised by what I term ’super-diversity’, where the traditional social order has vanished.
It is estimated that by 2050, around a third of the UK population will be made up of people of colour, while, according to the last census, those classified as White British are now significantly in a minority in places such as London, Luton, Slough and Leicester.
But the cultural distance between new migrants and the British has also altered dramatically. For most of the post-war period, immigrants generally hailed from the colonies and dominions of the Empire.
They were therefore not only imbued with British values but, regardless of their skin colour, shared many of the behaviours of the society they joined. Furthermore, they were settling in a country with a strong, self-confident sense of its own national identity.
Integration was made all the more straightforward by the existence of big corporations such as the Post Office, and the Ford Motor Company, where my brothers and sisters worked next to white colleagues, night and day, sharing their jokes, their passion for football and their pride in their London-bred children.
We all learned what was thought to be right from the bastions of British life, the Church and the BBC.
But many of these engines of integration have disappeared, just at a time when record numbers are arriving from all over the world, bringing with them practices, religions, attitudes and languages that have never been a significant part of British life before.
Contrary to all the upbeat propaganda, the result is a society that is becoming ever more divided. The integration of the past is giving way to polarisation. This year, more than half of ethnic minority pupils go to schools where white Britons are now a minority.
Frankly, our efforts to promote integration have been utterly feeble, and I believe the current laissez-faire approach is a recipe for disaster.
Dismissal of public concerns about immigration will only fuel resentment, division and extremism. We don’t need to guess the future. We can see it in continental Europe, exemplified by the dramatic rise of the National Front in France.
If we are to avoid that experience in Britain, our leaders need to stop parroting cliches, and start to introduce realistic policies.
That means, for example, an orderly approach to immigration through a points system based on valuing incomers’ skills and likely contribution.
It also means a far greater official emphasis on integration, especially through the promotion of modern liberal values and the learning and speaking of English.
Authorities have a statutory duty to fight discrimination. They should also be given one to fight the growing social dislocation we are witnessing.
Without such measures, I fear that Britain will become ever more fragmented.
The great danger is that the centre-Left political tradition to which I belong may, through sheer cowardice, allow the fatal undermining of the very values of equality and solidarity for which we have always stood — and once they are gone, we may never be able to recover them.