There are few things more depressing than the immigration debate in the UK. There are more upsetting things. There are more maddening things. But when it comes to politics the immigration debate here is depressing. The debate is being led by Nigel Farage and UKIP. Ponder that for a moment. This means allegedly serious politicians end up saying stupid things. Lord Bates, last week, suggested that too many foreign-born women residing in Britain are having babies.
This is the latest in a series of well-educated, experienced politicians spouting nonsense because they are dancing to the tune of an English caricature – the overtaxed bar-room bore. There’s nothing wrong with an overtaxed bar-room bore. I’m probably one myself. Some of my favourite pub ranters are English right-wingers. I like them enormously. I don’t think, however, anyone takes them seriously in the pub and it is clearly the case that no one should do outside it.
UKIP seems opposed to immigration at present. They want to move to some sort of points-based system (well, they do this week…who knows what it will be next week?). They aren’t racist, you see. Some of their best friends are Polish or Jamaican or French. They just think Britain is full. Or certain parts of Britain are full. Services are at breaking point. (When are they not? Have you ever heard a teacher, doctor, civil servant or whoever tell you that things are tickety boo and, actually, they have a bit of free time at the moment?) Or at least it will become full unless immigration is controlled by a points system. By the way, isn’t it telling that many people who espouse this ‘we aren’t xenophobic’ line are far keener on immigrants from the Commonwealth (well, certain bits of the Commonwealth anyway…India and Pakistan aren’t treated in the same way as Australia and Kiwis). Anyway, assuming, for a few minutes, that people who want to cut EU immigration don’t want to see the EU migrants replaced by Ozzies, Kiwis and Indians (or internal migration in the UK – how many graduates of the universities of Britain flock to London putting pressure on services?), we should note that this message is resonating with some voters.
These voters have undoubtedly had a tough time during the last few years so it is useful for the political class to have a scapegoat other than themselves and, indeed, the bankers (even people who blame the bankers for everything are fed up blaming the bankers now). So rather than debate the UKIP message what Labour and the Tories seem to be saying is ‘UKIP are wrong on immigration. But, well, here’s an extremely anti-immigration message that isn’t UKIP’s’. Labour are now promising, amongst other things, ensuring that ‘public sector workers in public facing-roles have minimum standards of English’ (to be honest, if people who can’t speak English are better candidates for public sector jobs that require English than British nationals I think we are really focusing on the wrong problem).
The Tories are also promising to ‘get tough’ on immigration. Boris Johnson wants to end the free movement of people between European Union states – though he has previously said he is the only politician in the UK in favour of immigration and, previously, called for greater Commonwealth immigration. Bojo’s call must come as a shock to Brits in Spain and the Loire Valley. One imagines them spluttering on their egg and chips as they fastiduously fail to learn the local lingo spluttering over their Daily Mail ‘Those bloody immigrants going over to the UK and not integrating. Not learning the Queen’s English. Oh, Pablo, be a love and get me another cerveza’. The British view is all too often: if they are coming here they are a leech, if we go there we are some munificent and magnificent being who should be welcomed by the locals with garlands in the streets. Immigrants here? A problem. Us emigrating elsewhere? Doing the rest of the world a bloody favour.
Well, maybe. The problem is that these policies outlined above may poll well but they are wrong-headed. Politicians who follow dog-whistles usually end up in places where they would rather not be and there are good reasons to ignore the public on some things (say, the death penalty, for instance) or, heaven forfend, showing that you have a point of principle and will stick to it and, hell, try to persuade the populous. If the Tories really believe in free markets then do the brave thing and argue for a freer labour market. We can’t moan about the EU not opening up to our professional services (which they bloody well should do ASAP) and then say ‘ah, freedom of movement for our massive accountancy firms and law firms is really important but for actual people? No, no, that doesn’t work’. If Labour really believe internationalism then be internationalist. Either way, the way to beat Farage is not to become Farage – he is better at it than you.
The main parties should, in my view, say something a little like this:
‘Immigration is good for Britain. It is good for Britons. It is good for the immigrants. It is good for our economy. It is good for our society. It makes us wealthier. It makes us happier. It adds to our culture. It benefits every single one of us every single day in hundreds of different ways. We shouldn’t be looking for ways to stop immigrants coming here we should be welcoming them with open arms and saying ‘thank you for picking us‘. We should be advertising for more immigrants. We should be looking for ways to make it easier for skilled folk globally to come here. We should tell the naysayers yah, boo, sucks.’
Let us start with the basics. There is not a fixed amount of work, or fixed number of jobs, to go around. We know this to be true. If someone comes to the UK from abroad and gets a job that means a number of things. It means they pay tax which helps us run the country and keep the various arms of the state we all rely upon to varying degrees running properly (or as close to properly as we can reasonably hope). It means they buy goods and services which means that people are employed in other jobs. For every job that an immigrant ‘takes‘ they will employ, via spending and taxation, other people. Most immigrants – the overwhelming majority – are young and of working age. That means they help us pay for things like schools, hospitals, pensions and benefits. As we age as a population, and as more and more people are retired for longer, we are going to have to have people look after us. We need people who are willing to wipe geriatric bottoms – lots of them. We are going to have to have people pay for our pensions. There simply aren’t enough Britons to do this. We need immigrants. Far from being full, we aren’t full enough!
And what sort of person comes to these shores? A bloody brave one. They choose to leave their communities, their families, their friends and loved ones. All the touchstones of security are left behind. They come to a country where they know few people, have fewer contacts, and often have little money. Yet they come and build a new life and, in doing so, help to build Britain. When these people arrive precious little is handed to them and they are often met with hostility. They knuckle down and work damned hard for little thanks. The overwhelming majority assimilate to our way of life whilst adding to our happiness by sharing parts of their own culture. We would, on every possible level, be poorer without the immigrants who have come to this country over the decades. They neurontin generic are hard working people who get a hard time from too many and the vast majority of them turn their cheek to the hostility. Would you? Pay your tax, make friends, build a life and be pilloried in the press. What a great deal. What a welcoming country we’ve become. Enough.
Can you imagine that? Can you imagine leaving all that you know behind and striking out for a new land where you don’t know the customs, you don’t know the people? How brave must you be to do that? We need pioneering, go-getting people in the UK and we should welcome those that choose to come here. And, let’s be a little bolder, some Brits could learn a thing or two from these hardy souls – life is tough and sometimes you need to do something extraordinary to make it easier. How many Brits without a job look at the world and say ‘I’m coming at you’? How many, in fact, stay where they’d always stayed waiting for the job to come to them? Who won’t move because it is hard? Who won’t take a risk? How many of our number who are down on their luck say ‘I’m going to make it somewhere else‘?
And it is true that many immigrants do jobs that Brits do not wish to countenance. They are the people cleaning toilets, wiping bottoms, picking fruit, and so forth. Hard bloody graft. To those who say ‘but they work for less than the minimum wage’: some may (but most don’t). Anyway, that isn’t an argument against immigration – it is either an argument to enforce the national minimum wage properly or it is an argument to lower the minimum wage. But what about all the jobs at minimum wage or higher? Ah, a deafening silence. It is easier for us as a country to blame others and it is easier for ourselves to blame others. I didn’t get the job because an immigrant got it. Maybe, just maybe, the immigrant was better qualified. Maybe, just maybe, the immigrant wanted it more. Maybe, just maybe, the employer was impressed with the gumption of a person who is willing to schlep across a continent for the sort of job most Brits think they are too good for.
But why us? Is it benefit tourism? Well, yes, some fiddle the system – but, you know, not anywhere near as often as native Brits. One could credibly argue that taking part in benefit fraud or tax evasion was assimilation to the local norms – but immigrants (as a group) put in far more to the system than they take out. Those that do cheat the system shouldn’t do so and they should be punished. Focusing on the crooked minority over the upstanding majority is the road to madness. That isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate fears. For some people in our society, it might be frightening to some people to see a woman in a burqa.
At the same time, it may be frightening too to see a group of young, white British men in tracksuits hanging around on a street corner. It might be frightening to some people to hear numerous languages on the bus. We can’t condemn people for their fears but we can say to them these are not things to be afraid of. Britain has assimilated many types of migrant over the years and they have all added to the mix. We are all, at some point, the sons or daughters of migrants. My aunt’s father was from Poland and built a life here. My wife’s grandmother is Maltese and built a life here. She’s more British than Wensleydale Cheese, more British than anyone I know.
We all have tales like this. Briton is a nation of migrants – from the Jews of North London, to the Irish in the North of England and West of Scotland, to the Windrush generation and many more beside. Without migrants we have no fish and chips, no Marks & Spencers, much of parliament (designed by the son of immigrants), Churchill (his mother was American), any of Brunel’s works (his father was French), Mo Farah or half the England cricket team. We don’t have Tolkein, Orwell, or Kipling. These men are as British as moaning about the weather.
So we have to make the case that immigration is good and not something to be scared of whilst acknowledging fear doesn’t always equal repellent views. And fear isn’t enough of a reason to oppose immigration or to want to clamp down upon it. Moreover, whilst we all win in the long run it is understandable that some people are genuinely upset by and do lose out in the short-term from immigration. There are plenty of ‘forgotten men and women’ in Britain. They live in cities, counties, and towns the length and breadth of the land. Honest people who work hard and who play by the rules. The people who pay their taxes and who put in more than they receive. But, in reality, it isn’t immigration that frustrates them. It is the idea that the society they are part of isn’t giving them a fair crack of the whip – immigration is what is blamed because it is easy to do so when, in reality, the complex forces of modern life are what frustrates. These good people believe that the political parties have forgotten about them. In their endless quest for Mondeo Man, Essex Man, Worcester Woman, or whoever the hell alarm clock Britons are the politicians have forgotten the people. What are the real worries of people? They want their kids educated well, they want decent healthcare, they want to live in a safe and peace-able way, they want to retire comfortably and they want, tellingly, to live in a world where things will get better. They want a job, a sense of community and a comfortable enough life.
And that’s the rub. No politician in Britain today – at least at the UK level – is trying to sell a vision of hope. We have, for decades, told ourselves we are failures. Consistently and constantly. A country that fought and won a noble war, that decolonised a mighty empire in a generally benign way (though clearly not perfectly), that built a far-reaching and far-seeing welfare state, that welcomed immigrants from across the globe and assimilated them, that played its part in many of the wonders of the modern world (how much influence have we had in major EU matters? A huge amount! How big was our contribution to the fall of communism? Pretty damned big); that has, as its capital, the greatest city in the world; that has many things that many countries the world over would crawl over broken glass for – no, we see none of that. We see failure. Some of the best universities in the world? Too many people go but not enough of the poorest. The centre of global dispute resolution? Bloody lawyers. The throbbing hub of world capitalism? Bloody bankers. Some of the finest engineering on the planet? Not enough of them. Helped put a rocket on a comet? Look at his t-shirt. And on it goes. We see the bad in everything we do and neglect the good nevermind the great. We see none of it. We see nothing but failure. And we are getting worse.
We’ve spent so long telling ourselves we are failures that there’s no room left for hope and optimism – and that allows charlatans like Farage to play his devilish tune. No one even tries to be positive about Britain anymore. No one, apart from, perhaps Richard Curtice in his films, says ‘you know what, actually Britain is a bloody marvellous place to live’. But it is a marvellous place to live. If it wasn’t, people wouldn’t be dying, quite literally, to get in. We should open the door.