Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Immigration: Time for a grown-up conversation

Why do so many people oppose immigration? And why do we on the left have such difficulty discussing it?

There are five kinds of objection to immigration.

The first is racial and is really about non-white immigrants. Older readers will remember the Tory MP who coined the phrase "British-born immigrants". He meant black and brown Britons of course; no-one was worried by Australian or even German immigration. Its root is a fear of difference and its the source of the right-wing hostility to immigration and immigrants exploited by the National Front, BNP and English Defence League.

This is racist, even fascist, and beyond the pale of civilised discussion. Few people now hold this view but it stays in our minds because of WW2 and because it used to be quite normal. For many of us opposition to racism was a test of political virtue and meant hostility to immigration controls - since they were demanded by obvious racists ranging from Tory knights to street-fighting thugs.

But there are other sorts of opposition to immigration.

The second is nostalgic and not necessarily or usually racist. The people who feel this don't generally hate non-whites. They do feel a sense of dislocation that familiar areas just don't feel familiar any more. Churches have become gurdwaras, faces brown or black and saris replace dresses in the shops. These are often the 'left behind people' - old and poorly educated - described in Revolt on the Right.

The third is cultural and is based on worries about integration. The current focus is on Muslims. Surveys show that many Muslims hold attitudes, notably toward women and gays, that are increasingly out of step with modern Britain. Many do not want to integrate and feel entitled to insist that British law and institutions impose their views on the rest of us, or at least on their fellow Muslims. The tendency of loud-mouthed self-appointed community leaders to attack democracy and tolerance and foresee 'the Islamic flag flying over Downing Street' is politically marginal but reinforces these worries.

The fourth is economic. Immigrants are supposed to be taking 'our' jobs and living off benefits provided by 'our' taxes. In fact immigrants generally take jobs that Britons don't want and draw less in benefits than Britons do. They also pay taxes and their presence stimulates our economy, creating more jobs. Indeed, they are more likely than Britons to be entrepreneurs!

So the economic objection is weak on the average. But we're not all average. Immigration does produce winners and losers and those with least capital and skill - the 'left behind people' mentioned above - are often the losers, facing energetic competition for the low-paid jobs for which they are qualified.

Finally there is a resources issue. The UK is a small and densely populated country that relies heavily on imported raw materials, food and fuel. In many cities, but especially in London, increasing numbers are experienced as rising rents, congestion on the streets, difficulty in getting GP appointments and a shortage of school places (and of places to build new schools). Now it's obviously true that immigration is not the only cause of these problems but its equally obvious that it is A cause.

And the future may be no better. The UK has not been self-sufficient for well over a hundred years but has so far been able to sell enough abroad to buy what it needs. Over the next thirty years Indian and Chinese economic growth and climate change will gather pace. We can expect increasing competition for shrinking supplies. We may have real difficulty in feeding our population.

So what's the bottom line? I think there are two:
  • There are real disadvantages (as well as advantages) to continued immigration.
  • Much of the opposition to immigration is fairly rational (insofar as politics can be rational) and not covert racism.
It's time for a grown-up discussion about population and immigration. It's time to stop seeing all critics of immigration (or of Islam) as closet racists and to recognise legitimate concerns. There are no easy answers, least of all BREXIT, but we do need answers.


  1. It is essential that we look at the root causes of migration. What drives people to leave home country, family, friends and culture to undertake a hugely risky journey and seek try to create a new life in a strange country? The causes are war, dictators, poverty, and increasingly, climate change If the panic about migration drives us to address these causes, migrants will have done us all a favour.

  2. Yes, Richard, we must address the causes. But the causes you mention are deep-seated and long-term. If they can be removed, and that's not clear, it will take decades.

    Meanwhile immigration is a CURRENT issue and demands a current response.

  3. David, on a second, careful reading I think your post is accurate and helpful. There is a limit to immigration, for the same reason that there is a limit to the global human population.

    It is sometimes argued that global population does not have a bearing on immigration to the UK, because total pop numbers have not changed. This is true, but the consumption patterns have changed, usually for the worse - heating bills are lower in warmer countries.

    So what do we do about immigration today? This is a good question. I would still say that the UN should immediately set up some sort of commission to look at the causes of migration. After that, here are 10 quick offerings off the top of me 'ead. The first 9 are important, but 10 is the most difficult, to me.
    Here goes:
    1 amnesty for illegals who have been here n years
    2 speed up paperwork (and therefore acceptance of genuine ) of asylum seekers and refugees.
    3 get process in Calais to speed up.
    4 speed up paperwork generally (create jobs in civil service/Border Agency, maybe use GWS)
    5 Check up on ethos within the Border Agency
    6 Check up on gang/task masters to make sure all is well. How do they treat their workers? What are conditions like?
    7 Inform people in sending countries of the dangers they face on the journey and the difficulties of life over here. Explain that £10 a week may sound a lot in terms of home country money, but doesn't buy enough food to live on in Britain.
    8 find some way to humanise the great trek through Greece etc.
    9 support Malta Greece, Italy, Jordan and other countries with huge refugee communities (maybe it would be more PC not to use the word "camp", because of its proximity to "concentration".
    10 Think of what we are going to do about people who want to come here but we have no use for them. Is "use" a valid description?
    11 Maximise provision of services (Health education housing - GWS again) for all, including the "left-behinds".
    12 Lots of other things I haven't thought of.

  4. As you say (10) is difficult but in the short to medium term it's the key. Should we admit everyone who wants to come and, if not, who should we refuse? Of course, we already have am immigration control system for non-EU citizens so it's not really too hard!

    I think your point (11) is useful. 'Revolt on the Right' shows how UKIP gets support from the left behind people. I sympathise with their concerns though I don't share many of them. They used to feel important at least collectively - now they don't. Since many of them are approaching or past retirement age we could do something for them by improving the support we give the elderly. This has the convenient merit of being the RIGHT thing to do.