Before writing this, I thought I'd better just check and see what I've said about immigration before. Given that I've been writing this blog (albeit increasingly infrequently) for nearly 9 years now and it almost invariably tops
the "what are you most worried about" charts in the polls, and that it seems to dominate public discourse (while apparently being something about which people aren't allowed to talk), I assumed I must have written something about it already. Well, it turns out that I haven't - which is itself an accurate reflection of where I
place immigration levels on my own personal list of priorities.
It's probably worthwhile, therefore, before I start to set out what my views are on immigration. Basically, what Sam Bowman says here
. Immigration is a reflection of the desirability of the country as a place to live and work: higher levels of immigration are symptomatic of a country's success. Those same immigrants are then causative of that nation's future success. While there are valid concerns (about which more below) immigration should be seen as a vote of confidence in the country, and a source of future prosperity.
Why then is everyone so angry about it? Is it because they're just big old racists who hate brown people? Labour (particularly risibly) and the Tories are engaged in a toughness battle on who can restrict immigration the most, while the Trots-in-tweed of Ukip embrace the impossibilist absolutism of an absolute 5 year ban
. Bash a migrant, win a goldfish. It's understandable, if depressing - the public is so anti-immigration that any politician wanting to get elected almost has to go with the flow.
But, as I said above, why the hostility? I think there is actually a fairly straightforward answer to this - for all the standard "land of immigration" memes that get rolled out (rather poignantly, this rather good example
is by Brooks Newmark, now just a punchline to a joke about press standards), the sheer scale of immigration in the last 15 years is unprecedented in British history. People talk about the Huguenot immigration of the late 17th century as being probative of a tradition of waves of migration. Some 50,000 Huguenots came to England over a 40 year period. Roughly 500,000 immigrants arrive every year now.
Even as late as the early 1990s, net migration figures were roughly between 0 - 50,000.
Then something changed.
What changed was a rapid and sudden increase in immigration, from less than 100,000 annually to more than 300,000. In part this reflected the fact that the UK was becoming an increasingly nice place to live, and a good place to get a job. In part it was the result of globalisation - both capital and labour have become much more mobile over the past 20 years. In part it was the result of deliberate policy
I suspect that a change in migration levels of this scale will always provoke a reaction. People generally don't like change. Visibly different populations create a perfect environment for resentment and mistrust. The closer-knit a community, the harder it is for incomers to assimilate (this, by the way, would be my explanation for why London reports by far the least hostility to immigration - most people in London are immigrants, whether that's to the UK, or just to London from elsewhere). If you add a leavening of genuine concerns (say, the strains put on local services by increased populations or, more tendentiously, the propensity of some minority immigrant groups to be much less tolerant of aspects of British society than we have come to expect) you make opposition more or less inevitable.
So, for what it's worth, there's my thesis. Immigration is a good thing, both as a marker of a good society and as a thing in itself. The unprecedented scale of immigration since about 1998, however, has caused local tensions that were probably almost impossible to prevent. What can we do about it?
There's the rub. There's actually very little that any Government could do to reduce immigration without the policy being deeply damaging to the wider economy (and society). As a starting point as poor old Nick Boles said
(and then unsaid), freedom of movement of labour within the EU is a cornerstone of the entire project. This is not a battle the UK can win, and the fact that it's been picked as one looks like a marker set down towards Brexit (or, more charitably, like a colossal bargaining chip to be negotiated away). Another large component of immigration is marriage
. Speaking as someone who married an immigrant, I'd be reluctant for the British Government to start banning its citizens from marrying who they pleased. The third key component is economic migration: people move here not only because there are jobs here for them, but because here is a great place to create jobs. These are not people we want to discourage from being here.
What should they do instead? Obviously, educate British children so that they can effectively compete in the modern market (and hey! at least progress is being made on that front). Talk about the benefits of immigration while accepting that there are downsides, and concentrating policy not on preventing the migrants, but on alleviating the social problems that come with them (Hopi is predictably good on this
). Finally, be unapologetic in asserting British cultural values. New citizens of the UK should be welcomed, properly informed of British laws and customs, and left in no doubt that where cultures clash, it is British values that take precedence
Obviously, none of this will happen. The Tories, Labour and Ukip will spend the next 6 months promising to be beastlier to immigrants, while never actually spelling out what that means (except for Ukip, who don't care when things are impossible, only that they fit on the door of a taxi), and one of the things Britain ought to be proudest of will become another grubby piece of politicking. Can't wait.