Immigration, concern about immigration, control over immigration, seems for many to be one of the very biggest issues in the EU Referendum. As a second generation immigrant, I have something of a personal interest in the way that immigration is dealt with, although that doesn’t mean that I or indeed immigrants of any generation in the UK must automatically support “uncontrolled” immigration or have no “concerns” about immigration. Historically indeed it has tended to be the last wave of immigrants to any country who have been most concerned about the impact of future waves of immigration (there’s an interesting room in the Ellis Island museum of immigration in New York exploring this phenomenon).
As Sartre put it, hell is other people, so it is not surprising that anything involving increasing the number of other people around will inspire concern for most people. Most people are somewhat resistant to change even if that change is intended to be or turns out to be for the better. At a time when we’ve been told for many years that “there is not enough” of many of the things we need and value, it is quite reasonable for people to take the view that “if there is already not enough to go round, how can it be any good to spread what there is more thinly across more people?”. So ignoring either of those reasonable sentiments to steer the debate away from immigration entirely, or to claim that there is no good reason to discuss it at all, will immediately lead to the conclusion that people are not being taken seriously. These are concerns which can and do legitimately arise even in respect of migration within this country by people from this country: the joke in the 90s posters for the Manchester nightclub “South” (“Students, why don’t you F*** off down South this weekend?”) or the embarrassment felt by some at the reaction to their regional accents when they first move to London illustrate this.
However, while agreeing that it is not per se racist to have concern over immigration, I do sometimes feel that focusing on it allows for a relatively polite screen against uglier underlying sentiments. In this blog I’ll try to explore what I think are the broad arguments about immigration and also whether in fact a vote to leave the EU will address those arguments. At a high level, the answer to the latter is that of course it could, but as in my previous blog, I take the view that the better approach in deciding on how to vote in the referendum involves at least sketching out a plausible and appealing vision for how it would be dealt with in fact. What I won’t do is drill deeply into numbers and statistics. This is because it is too easy to get bogged down in claim and counterclaim about precise numbers and models for predicting movements of people and because I think that most people’s reactions to immigration are not based on data but on personal experience and perception. Which is not wrong when we have to remember that this is a debate about real people and their lives rather than lifeless numbers. That doesn’t mean I’m going to ignore numbers entirely, just that I hope that the discussion won’t stand or fall on where a decimal point can be placed in a table. The main discussion is focused on migration other than for the purposes of asylum, which while related, ought to be distinct and so I’ll deal with that in a separate section.
What are the concerns about immigration, or some of them?
My impression is that there are four main aspects to immigration which motivate people to think that this is a significant issue in the context of the UK’s membership of the EU. I’m not putting them down in any consciously intended order of merit or significance or otherwise. Each of them will interrelate with the others to some extent.
- The impact on public services and quality of life.
- The impact on employment and wages.
- The fact that as a nation it should be up to us and nobody else who may come to the UK to live and work.
- The impact on local and national culture of people who may not share it or might even be in many ways opposed to it.
The first two aspects can broadly be described as economic ones. How important they are in referendum voting decisions will depend more on how they are perceived by individuals than on the aggregated economic data. If someone has noticed a worsening of access to the health service when they themselves have tried to get an appointment with a GP, have found themselves ever further away from being able to get the home they want or a place for their child in a local school while seeing immigrants appear to get ahead of them in those things it will be unpersuasive to throw data about waiting lists shortening etc at them. Similarly, if in fact someone has seen their ability to get a job or to get a pay rise reduced, they won’t be convinced by any number of statistics about employment rates and wage inflation.
The third one is a sovereignty argument – if this is of paramount importance, even if in fact there has been no adverse impact from immigration as it has been or even if it can be clearly demonstrated to have been positive, it won’t matter, because the principle remains the same. It is difficult to argue against as a point of principle if you place sovereignty above all else. Many of the most committed supporters of Leave start and finish here, but I think most of those who will decide on practical grounds would see it as the icing on the cake if Brexit delivered more visible change on whichever of the other three aspects they found most personally impactful, rather than the whole cake itself.
The fourth is a more nebulous one to define but still very real as a perception. There have been many discussions about what Britishness, Englishness, Scotsness, Welshness, Northern Irishness actually mean without any clear and uncontroversial conclusion. That is sometimes, mistakenly used to conclude that there is no such thing or worse, that those are mere petty nationalisms principally for “little Englanders”. I think it is more that the fourth aspect of the debate is a general feeling of discomfort about rapid change across the spectrum of life combined with a belief that even if we can’t quite put our finger on what it specifically comprises of, our local environment as it was some time up until the recent past was pretty good in terms of how we got on and related to our neighbours and communities. It doesn’t need nostalgia to the extreme of the Daily Express’s world view (although this is perhaps its epitome). It is for me a negative nationalism to an extent because it is at best merely sceptical about the possibility that change and incomers could assimilate into society let alone be positive. I don’t think it is specific to the issue of EU immigration but immigration more generally. It is a position which if strongly held would not be persuaded at all even by there being big economic benefits to immigration on any basis, in or outside the EU. One manifestation of it was seen in the erstwhile BNP and its open opposition to foreigners, but it is more prevalent in a quieter “very nice, but we’re happy as we are, thank you”, spoken to by Nigel Farage and UKIP.
So where does this leave the EU Referendum debate?
In my next couple of blogs I’ll look into these four aspects. My impression is that all four of these sets of arguments have two angles, a technical one and an emotional one. The Remain campaign started trying to focus on the technical one by bombarding us with data and opinions of the global great and good. The Leave campaign has been very successful in understanding the power of the emotional one. Remain’s response has often been to play on the strong emotion of fear that runs in these emotional angles – fear of change, fear of impotence, fear of failure. But that is a negative line and so not an attractive one. However, Leave hasn’t been very successful in rebutting “Project Fear” with a coherent and unifying “Project Hope”. Had it been able to do so, I think we would already be very clearly heading for Brexit.