There is no getting around the fact that this Labour government has presided over an era of massive and almost unfettered immigration – 2.3 million migrants have been added to the population since 2001, while Home Office statistics reveal that 270,000 work permits were granted to non-EU nationals between 2005 and 2008. In fact, 115,000 individuals have passed the government’s citizenship test in this year alone. And yet, despite the evident reality that immigration is a huge part of modern British life, it is an issue that is frequently sidelined at Westminster. As an issue considered too polarizing and controversial to be put to rational debate, immigration has been surrendered to radical parties as their exclusive political property. The problem is – as the rise of the British National Party demonstrates – that many Britons have legitimate concerns about immigration. And, because immigration is so rarely addressed by the establishment parties, these concerns not only go unnoticed, but can manifest themselves in perverse misconceptions and deeply-held mistruths. Impact’s Alex Friede examines the true character of immigration, and its real, practical impact, asking the oft-avoided question: is immigration benefiting Britain?
The popular answer would undoubtedly be ‘no.’ According to a recent study by the German Marshall Fund, 71% of Britons polled disapproved of Labour’s immigration policy, while 66% agreed that immigration is more of a ‘problem’ than an ‘opportunity.’ On the whole, Britons firmly disapprove of the supposedly ‘open-door’ character of British immigration – it has been, it is believed, far too easy for immigrants to settle in Britain. Indeed, it is difficult to credibly argue that Labour’s immigration record prior to 2008 was either managed or consistent. The statistics I have cited demonstrate the sheer scale of British immigration, but the state of illegal immigration is even more worrying – for example, the most recent study by the London School of Economics estimates that there are currently 725,000 illegal migrants operating in Britain. Worse still, there is no machinery in place that tells us whether visitors to Britain ever leave. The biggest failure of this government has been its absolute inability to strictly regulate our borders or to reassure its citizens that it has immigration under control.
Nonetheless, Brown’s current policy – the points-based system that has been in place since early 2008 – is a sensible, effective approach. While the severe recession has demolished Britain’s attractiveness to prospective migrants, there can be no doubt that the recent drop in immigration is due, in part, to our new discriminatory system. The real strength of this arrangement is that it takes an optimistic view of immigration – those who are skilled, talented and motivated should be encouraged to enter our country. In my view, this comes to the heart of the matter. Talented migrants can expand the talent pool, allowing for increased specialization and efficiency in a variety of key industries; similarly, enthusiastic migrants can invigorate the native-born population by forcing them to compete and keep up. It is the sort of Laffer-style free marketism that works so well in the commercial sector: competition can breed progress amongst individuals, as well as in trade. Indeed, this is why Tory plans for an annual limit on immigration fall short. Not only are they completely impractical – we are yet to be told, for example, explicitly who decides, and on what basis, this limit will be – but it entirely contradicts Cameron’s vision of ‘compassionate conservatism’ that stresses individualism and liberty. Rather than enforcing arbitrary limits on immigration, we should be enticing talented and able immigrants who can contribute and improve the economic and social make-up of Britain – regardless of the fact that they own different passports.
The economic impact of immigration is relatively obscure. Brown’s traditional line that it has boosted the economy – to the tune of £6 billion, no less – is seriously undermined by the conclusion of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee in April 2008 that maintained immigration has done very little for per capita GDP. It seems that the economic benefits of immigration for Britain as a whole are largely dependent on the criteria examined, and on one’s own perception of progress and profit. As for the impact of immigration on the ‘ordinary’ Briton, the idea that immigrants have somehow prevented Britons from gaining employment is misleading and inaccurate. Rather, immigrants under Labour have occupied new jobs that would otherwise be vacant. For example, while migrant workers accounted for 740,000 jobs between 2002 and 2006, the number of British-born workers remained steady. In fact, almost all of the new jobs created under Brown’s chancellorship – 81% per the Office of National Statistics – have gone to immigrants. The reality is that our years of economic prosperity were wholly reliant on immigrant labour, and that Britain’s ‘indigenous’ workforce was simply not fit for purpose. Handicapped by a vastly unequal education system and hamstrung by a perverse benefits system that removed the incentive to work, British unemployment has become chronic and ingrained. Rather than exacerbating our counter-productive welfare system, immigration has masked it – removing immigrants will not change this uncomfortable truth.
Of course, the opposition to immigration does not hinge purely on its economic impact. Because immigration has disproportionately affected certain communities, the idea that it represents an all-out cultural assault has emerged. Given that – in reality – immigrants only account for roughly 10% of the population, this idea of a cultural siege is unconvincing, but Labour’s top-down style of government has intensified the anxieties that accompany immigration. For example, some schools and hospitals have experienced massive surges of immigrants, resulting in inevitable tensions. If immigration is to function in Britain, new citizens must be integrated and assimilated – they must do more than pay their taxes and obey the law. In fact, real social harmony depends on a common language and a consensually accepted set of ideals. In other words, immigrants must embrace – and be included in – an idea of ‘Britishness’ that is based less on appearance and genetics and more on the acceptance of certain values. We should treat all citizens as individuals, not as members of particular groups – be they ethnic, class-based or religious. We are all rational human beings, after all. Indeed, we need not be afraid of social or cultural change. Societies naturally evolve and adapt, and the most vibrant ones positively embrace new cultures. ‘Britishness’ is not dependent on any vague notion of appearance or heritage, but the approval of a set of ideals and an enduring commitment to liberty. Immigration should not be seen as an affront to this sentiment.
Neither should it be seen as an affront to Britain. Politicians may find that rhetoric about ‘British jobs for British workers’ (Brown) and ‘substantially lower’ immigration rates (Cameron) strongly resonate with the British public, but they are missing the point. Immigration can benefit Britain – adding talent, aspiration and an enterprising zeal, regardless of one’s background, should be actively sought, rather than stifled. Indeed, the sort of intolerance that seeks to smother immigration based on entirely static and rigid notions of ‘Britishness’ strikes me as fundamentally illiberal – and, paradoxically, inherently un-British.