I have concerns about immigration. Specifically that the views of most people are moving in a direction that I am not comfortable with. It is the level of fury expressed that frightens me. Whenever I watch Question Time or read social media comments, I am surprised by how angry the public is over the level of immigration to Britain. I am in a minority of people concerned by this rhetoric, and that frightens me even more.
Many of us on the left do not understand how angry people are. This anger is different from the usual political anger: dissatisfaction with the government or grumbling over taxes. People want far reaching change to the whole country. 26% of the population want the government to encourage migrants to leave the UK, even if they have children born here. People are willing to go to extremes to control immigration, like leaving the EU and wrecking the economy through a Brexit deal that prioritises control of immigration above all else.
There is complacency on the left and amongst liberal people about the level of change needed to placate people’s anger over immigration. We think that there will be an easy fix. We have assumed that it is only low-skilled migration from other EU countries that people object to. Leaving the European Common Market and tightening border controls will bring down low skilled migration. However, some groups express concern about the number of foreign nurses working in the NHS.
The lack of integration by some immigrants is often cited as a cause of hostility to immigration. Integration is clearly an issue, but I am not sure how we force people to integrate. What do we do with the people who are unwilling or unable to integrate? Should they be deported? Even if they have children born here? Remember that 26% of the country want the children of immigrants born in the UK deported, even if they are integrated. There is also the problem that people do not want to pay for programs that will help immigrants integrate. Most people would rather just have less immigration than pay for integration.
This hatred of immigration is not new; Britain did not suddenly become more xenophobic this year. However, the referendum result has exposed a hatred dwelling beneath the surface of our society. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Daniel Hannan and others picked at a scab to get the result they wanted, and now they have exposed a deep wound. The origins of this wound are complex; they go back to the days of British Empire and the birth of a sense of British exceptionalism that has bred contempt for Europe and people from other countries.
Attitudes worsened after immigration increased following the enlargement of the EU in 2004. Tony Blair has primarily been blamed for not imposing transitional controls on the number of people who move to Britain. He chose not to advance an argument of how this immigration would benefit the country - filling many skill shortages, especially in the NHS and generating more tax to support the welfare state - and this left a space that the far right filled with xenophobia.
Blair believed society was inevitably moving in a socially and economically liberal direction. He viewed those opposed to mass immigration similarly to socialists opposing to his market liberalisation: their views did not need arguing against; history would ultimately prove him right. He viewed the country as a business that had to adapt to market changes. Blair did not realise that although the country prospered after his reforms, the people opposed to mass immigration did not go away. When a business fails to adapt it disappears, but people remain fixed in their views. The discontent with immigration did not disappear over time. It festered into the wound that we have today.
A few people will be convinced by more integration and a reduction in the number of low skilled workers entering the country, but the fire that heats this anger (reflected in the anti-immigrant Daily Mail, Daily Express and others) is a deep intolerance, which will endure. Most people will not simply accept a fall in migration statistics; they want to see the reduction reflected in their local environment. It is not a logical dislike of the economic impacts of immigration, it is a deep emotional dislike of how the country is changing and a powerful desire to turn these changes back. It cuts across class, region, gender, income and age and cannot be solved by addressing one concern.
A recent OECD report recommends that western countries allow immigration on an unprecedented scale to redress the imbalance between the number of workers paying into their welfare states and pension schemes and the growing number of people dependant on the welfare state because of our aging population. We need a lot more workers if we are going to sustain the NHS, our education system, state pensions and the rest of the welfare state. I am worried that people would rather the welfare state collapse than allow more migrants into the country.
Politicians are falling over themselves to give the people shouting about controls on immigration what they want, even if it is bad for the economy and the welfare state. This is especially disappointing when it comes from the Labour Party, but all the major parties are guilty of it. There is no sense from politicians that if the public want something really drastic to be done about immigrants they should not be allowed to have it. By not pushing back against open hostility to immigrants we are setting a dangerous precedent.
What happens if the people's anger at immigration is not placated by leaving the single market and tighter border controls? What happens if people are still this angry after Brexit and the Tories’ anti-immigration policies have been enacted? How bad does the anger have to get before someone says that we have a national problem with how much we hate immigrants? If we continue to allow politicians and the press to blame everything on immigrants and not stand up for them violence is likely to follow.
We are dangerously close to rounding up and deporting huge amounts of people because of a sense that they do not belong in this country. The justification for this will be that they do not belong because they do not have the right skills, or have not integrated properly, or it is politically convenient to do so. It is a horrifying thought.
Why are most people I speak to so unconcerned about this anger? Many on the left or who are liberal think that immigration is too high and should come down. These liberals underestimate how angry most people are and how radical a change they want. It is important that we stand up to hatred wherever we see it and spread awareness of its depth. We must not understate the damage that could be done by placing controlling immigration above all other political objectives.
Are my worries just the panic of someone completely out of touch with the opinions of ordinary people? I am completely over-reacting to people’s legitimate concerns? I would be interested to know if this is the case, because right now I am concerned about out attitude to immigration.