Immigrant Song

by Quinn

I was never entirely convinced by the Tories’ conversion to “green” policies, so it was encouraging that with their “Damian Green” policy they sounded like they were right back on track.
I’m talking about them talking about immigration, of course, and it is always fun to revisit the subject, especially in the light of the twattish John Reid stating that “we have to get away from this daft so-called politically correct notion that anybody who wants to talk about immigration is somehow a racist.” He is right, of course – I’m talking about immigration right now – but I think it is also valid to say that often, when people complain about immigration, racist is indeed exactly what they are.

Times change. Not that long ago all asylum seekers were castigated as bogus felons who were really just economic migrants. Now the bandwagon has moved on and everyone is having a pop at the economic migrants themselves, especially in the light of Romania and Bulgaria’s impending accession into the EU.

The figures from the Home Office regarding the number of migrants from the recent accession countries certainly appear to have caused a stir (perhaps 600,000 rather than the expected 15,000), but why? If you feel there is a problem with immigrants, what difference do the actual numbers make? If you think foreigners are causing you a problem, then were you to discover that in fact only 500 Poles had entered the country that would be irrelevant. Similarly, if you feel that we have absorbed recent migrants brilliantly, if it were revealed that in reality over 5 million have entered the country it still shouldn’t matter. What is the right number of immigrants anyway? Don’t ask because no one can answer, save for a few hard-line racists who tend towards the zero figure.

Recent complaints from places such as Southampton and Slough have made the point that recent arrivals have put a strain upon public services. But have they? Latest figures show that 94% of recent immigrants are working and paying taxes to provide for those services, quite possibly paying additional bus and train fares for empty seats on public transport while “native Brits” (copyright Laban Tall) sit in their cars. But Manchester too has recently complained that the large increase in the city’s population since the last census is not reflected in the grant they receive from central government, but their increase is largely a result of internal migration rather than an influx of foreigners, due to increased housing in the city centre. If local government grants don’t take account of recent population increases, then that is a fault in the formula in funding local services rather than with immigration per se. What’s the difference in essence?

What about the complaint that recent migrants depress the wages of, say, plumbers? Apart from the fact that evidence for this is often thin on the ground, are we saying that plumbers should be a protected profession where their supply is limited so that the rest of us have to take a day off work for the pleasure of waiting in all day for a plumber to fail to turn up, and then pay an artificially exorbitant call out charge when he finally does arrive? Perhaps while we are at it we should cut the number of places at college for trainee plumbers so we can further cement the existing plumbers’ market power? I don’t think so.

But regarding immigration, things have been getting a little bit weird. Traditionally the “left” have favoured immigration, while the “right” have largely opposed it; but recently, certain bloggers’ favourite whipping girl Polly Toynbee has been arguing against open borders within the EU, as has the well-respected Labour MP Frank Field (I say well-respected, I’ve always thought of him as a bit of a tit, but there you go). In which case I think this is all a useful reminder of what I have argued for ages; that stated differences between right and left are overwhelmingly silly and pointless. For one thing, there was always the fact that while you could define the right as racist and the left as internationalist, you could also point to the right as being for free markets (and free movement of labour) while the left supports government intervention (including immigration controls). This is still a generalisation, however, and I prefer a simpler definition of the argument; that it is not between right and left, but between right and wrong.

Strip away the surrounding arguments and I think most people fall back into a default setting. Some start from the point of view that immigration is wrong; their liberalism, so to speak, comes from the practical, grudging acknowledgment that some newcomers may be required to push around hospital beds, or diagnose cancers, but really they are against immigration. On the other hand there are others who say that ideally anyone from anywhere can move to anyplace, that we should have full freedom of movement; that regrettably this is may not always be practical – for example, we may not currently be able to have totally open borders for people to emigrate to a country just to claim state benefit unless we are determined to bankrupt the country – but the onus should be on proving how a new immigrant can damage our economy. I know that you should respect others’ points of view, but in my opinion it is clear cut; the latter are right and the former wrong.

You may say that most people are somewhere in the middle, but at heart I think people fit into one of the two camps. Many may sound pro-immigration, arguing for greater numbers into this country; but if they stress the fact that it is simply for the good of our economy, and that immigration is in our gift rather than an inalienable right, then they fit into the first group. Meanwhile, some of the recent left wing converts to the anti-immigration line may lie in the latter group, that they support open borders in principle but genuinely feel recent immigrants are doing harm; but as with their right wing brethren their evidence seems more anecdotal than factual.

I don’t think there has ever been a time when some people haven’t said “okay, I’ll admit we’ve handled previous immigrants well, and they have contributed to society, but this time enough is enough, we can’t handle more, we are full up”. I suspect that following the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, if there are no restrictions placed on movement and when the British economy has failed to implode as a consequence, the arguments will move on to Turkey’s attempts to join the EU. However, I start from the viewpoint that a Manchurian and a Mancunian have exactly the same right to be allowed to live in Liverpool if they so wish; and if the debate is between right and wrong then I am happy to be on the right wing.

Update 28/8/06: My wife has just pointed out that the line “I prefer a simpler definition of the argument; that it is not between right and left, but between right and wrong” is a corny load of old toss worthy of Tony Blair; and I have to agree. Criticism noted. I will try not to do it again.

Update 12/11/06: Speaking on this morning’s Sunday AM, and discussing immigration, shadow home-secretary David Davies said “this isn’t actually about whether it’s right or left, it should be about whether it’s right or wrong”. I feel physically sick.