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.