Monday 3 May 2010

The taboo subject everyone’s talking about

Immigration and the election campaign

Immigration is a funny old issue. From watching the leaders’ debates on TV, you would think there is a clear consensus that immigration is a problem and tougher curbs are needed to control it. Taboo? What taboo? But last week’s ‘bigotgate’ episode is a reminder that things are more complicated. For the media and political classes, public concerns about immigration have become politically suspect, marking people out as old-fashioned or plain racist. Moreover, the vast bulk of immigration to the UK is from within the European Union, and can’t be curbed without breaching EU rules, something none of the mainstream parties is willing to do. There is thus something charade-like about the whole business of talking tough on immigration. The ‘debate’ is fundamentally dishonest.

The fact is that when politicians discuss immigration, they are not engaging in a political debate, but trying to pre-empt debate. Many years ago, the BBC radio comedy show The Mary Whitehouse Experience ran a sketch in which a lefty householder is confronted with a plumber he assumes will embody all the backward prejudices he himself associates with the working class. When the plumber notes that there are West Indians living next door, the lefty decides that, since it would take years of re-education to challenge this man’s racism, it will be easier just to grit his teeth and go along with it, So he responds by saying, ‘Yeah, bloody jungle bunnies’ etc etc… ‘My wife’s West Indian,’ replies the plumber.

This is pretty much what is happening when mainstream politicians discuss immigration, and whether their audience in fact embraces migrants or resents the fact that all the plumbers seem to be Polish these days is almost irrelevant. They understand very well that their concerns about immigration, legitimate or not, are simply not taken seriously.

When politicians compete to sound tougher than the other parties on immigration, they do so cynically, in the belief that voters’ prejudices must be indulged. The paradoxical effect is to convey the sense that immigration is a serious problem they are failing to address. In fact, if immigration is as serious a problem as politicians’ tough rhetoric suggests, their proposals are clearly inadequate. Only UKIP and the BNP have policies that make sense.

All this means that, while immigration can continue on a fairly large scale, politicians are unwilling to make a case for it, and indeed they do everything they can to make things harder for non-EU immigrants and visitors, since this is where they have some leeway. Of course, for the right audience, politicians will mumble approvingly about the economic benefits of immigration – London mayor Boris Johnson more enthusiastically than most – and writers like Philippe Legrain set out in detail many of the advantages of immigration. But in political as opposed to economic terms, it is only the taboo surrounding the topic that stifles meaningful opposition to immigration. Crucially, though, this taboo also pre-empts any more openly political argument for immigration.

Tellingly, the most passionate and eloquent advocates of free movement I’ve encountered in recent years are not left-wingers but radical Christians. They are unworldly in the best sense of the word, refusing to let moral imperatives be overruled by the ‘realism’ of conventional thinking. But what’s frustrating is that it only takes a leap of imagination to give real flesh to this sentiment. The humanist case for free movement rests on a recognition of human creativity, the fact that more people can solve problems rather than adding to them.

No doubt an influx of immigrants to a particular area puts pressure on public services; it would be dangerously naïve to pretend otherwise. But it would be equally naïve not to notice that immigrants could in principle more than resolve this problem both by working in public services and by working in an expanding private sector (immigrants are consumers as well as producers) and paying taxes, increasing capacity rather than simply using up resources. What makes immigration a problem in particular areas is not a natural limit to the numbers of people those areas can sustain, but a failure of planning, a failure of imagination.

It is often suggested that the current economic malaise makes Britain less able than ever to absorb large numbers of immigrants. But this assumption rests on what Frank Furedi calls a depletionist view of history and humanity, a neo-Malthusian insistence that resources are fixed, with the corresponding supposition that immigrants must somehow be living at the expense of native Britons. It is because this assumption is shared by all the mainstream parties that their acceptance of large-scale immigration makes no sense, and can only be sustained by dishonesty obscured by taboo – empty tough talking on camera combined with pervasive PC finger-wagging behind the scenes.

If we are seriously to confront the societal crisis we face, we need to think bigger. Rather than downsizing the population to fit the shrinking economy, how about the opposite? The UK is badly in need of new infrastructure, but rather than seeing this as convenient make-work for laid-off workers, we could be thinking about expanding the economy by building whole new cities, harnessing the energies of native Britons and immigrants alike in a shared project of creativity and transformation. Is this really less realistic than trying to go backwards as a society?

The seeming unworldliness of the case for open borders is exacerbated by two further taboos: multiculturalism and the welfare state. Firstly, liberal immigration policy is associated with a craven political correctness and loathing for traditional British culture - and this is widely considered to be a particular sticking point with the more conservative ‘white working class’. But multiculturalism is not simply a response to immigration; instead it reflects the collapse from within of traditional institutions. Indeed, a society that is more confident about itself and what it stands for would be far less troubled by large numbers of foreigners who want to be part of that. Rather than blaming immigration for undermining British culture, we should have the courage to value the best of our traditions while looking to the future, by all means ditching divisive and backward-looking multiculturalism in the process.

Secondly, it is assumed that open immigration means a ‘soft-touch’ approach to welfare, with hand-outs and homes for all comers. There is no reason this should be so. Leaving aside the fact that benefits are hardly generous or easy to come by for immigrants to the UK, it’s perfectly consistent to argue that people should be free to enter the country without qualifying for any kind of benefits. In fact, asylum seekers are currently not allowed to work, and in many if not most cases would be better off if they were allowed to fend for themselves rather than depending on measly and demeaning food vouchers. Better to scrap the asylum system altogether and let refugees and economic migrants alike make a go of things for themselves.

The wider problems of the welfare state and ‘dependency culture’ have nothing to do with migrants, and as with multiculturalism, focusing the debate on immigration only serves to obscure what is really at stake and to reinforce the taboo around the issue. The truth is that a taboo issue is not one people don’t talk about, but one people refuse to discuss honestly. Immigration is only the most obvious example in the current election campaign.

Numbers nine and ten in the Institute of Ideas’ 21 Pledges for Progress, to declare an amnesty for currently illegal immigrants and to open the borders from now on, only really make sense as part of a large-scale transformation of British politics and public discussion. Above all, this means honest and uninhibited debate of many issues currently mired in taboo. Bring it on.

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