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If we want open borders, we need open debate

The Oxford students calling for the censure of an anti-immigration professor are selling short both the case for open borders and academic freedom.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

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Not to be outdone by their peers at other universities who have banned the Daily Mail and the Sun, or tried to censor the word ‘gay’, a group of Oxford students is leading a campaign to sack a professor for expressing opposition to immigration (1). Student Action for Refugees (STAR) has organised a petition calling for David Coleman, professor of demography at St John’s College, Oxford, to refrain from using his academic title when discussing immigration publicly, because it ‘brings the university into disrepute’.

STAR has also urged the college to ‘consider the suitability of Coleman’s continued tenure as a professor of the university, in light of his well-known opinions and affiliations relating to immigration and eugenics’. The professor helped found the anti-immigration think tank MigrationWatch and is a member of the Galton Institute, formerly the Eugenics Society.

Coleman, who, backed by the university and the University and College Union, has refused to stop using his title, undoubtedly holds unpleasant views. His main aim is to refute the utilitarian case for immigration by arguing that long-term population decline is benign, and that its economic effects can be managed through making ‘somewhat painful adjustments to workplace participation, the retirement age and pensions funding’. Immigration, he concludes, is simply not worth the risk to ‘social cohesion’ and the added pressure on public services (2).

There is plenty to object to in this miserabilist, neo-Malthusian analysis. Given the choice between being forced to work harder and longer, while receiving miserly government pensions, and accepting immigration, most people would choose the latter. Even so, Coleman presents a false dichotomy between lowering our aspirations and accepting the possibility of social chaos. This reflects his own reactionary lack of political imagination. And yet, rather than offering a progressive political alternative – and putting the case for freedom of movement for all migrants – STAR and others prefer to silence critics of immigration.

Indeed, Kieran Hutchinson Dean, the STAR campaigner who organised the petition against Coleman, told us: ‘We always knew he was a respected member of the university, and we don’t question his work.’ Instead, the main aim is to ‘raise awareness of his affiliation to eugenics’ and to ‘make people more aware about these links because this might change their views on his credibility’. Coleman ‘gives MigrationWatch added credibility, which we think is potentially quite dangerous’, says Hutchinson Dean, because MigrationWatch produces reports criticising immigration.

Behind today’s attempts to restrict free speech, whether it is the government or a group of students leading the charge, is a degraded view of other people as either witless sponges who will unthinkingly soak up whatever they are told, or potential fist-swingers who, given any encouragement, will become racists or xenophobes. So Hutchinson Dean and STAR do not question the validity of Coleman’s academic research, instead just denouncing it as ‘dangerous’.

It is precisely because the public debate about Britain’s immigration policy turns on narrow technocratic questions about population growth and the country’s skills base, rather than any vision of what sort of society we want to live in, that the views of an obscure professor of demography can carry so much weight. Students concerned about the status of immigrants might be better advised to challenge the government’s immigration policy, which is based on narrow, utilitarian calculations of economic benefit. The perfectly reasonable aspirations of economic migrants or the rights of refugees don’t get a look in.

Yet STAR seems confused as to what its position is on immigration. Hutchinson Dean told us that he personally has no position on whether there should be limits to immigration. In fact, STAR ‘doesn’t have a position as a group’: ‘Some of the people involved think that we should have open border policies, and that all borders are inherently racist. Others think that we do need immigration controls, but that the policies that are in place now are unfair and unjust’. The only thing that STAR agrees on, he says, is that detention centres are ‘immoral, but as an organisation we don’t debate the fine points of the theory, and how and what the ideal immigration system is’.

It is hardly surprising, then, to discover that STAR confines itself to providing creative writing workshops for internees at the Camp Campsfield detention centre for immigrants in Oxford, joining demonstrations to have the camp closed, sending protesting postcards to the home secretary, and trying to shut up Professor David Coleman.

Meanwhile, some of those who do have a particular position – like Teresa Hayter, author of Open Borders: The Case Against Immigration Controls – also refuse to counter Coleman’s arguments in public. Hayter says: ‘I support the petition. I don’t think he should be a professor at the university.’ Hayter refused to ‘go up on a platform with him’ at a recent debate organised by King’s College, London, because MigrationWatch statistics ‘receive a lot of exposure and publicity on the website of the BNP, the tabloid press and even on the BBC’. Coleman should not have been ‘given a platform in the knowledge of his opposition to immigration and also…of his long association with eugenics’, which is ‘a dangerous, frightening doctrine’, continues Hayter. ‘I do not feel it is possible to have any sort of polite, or honest, or academic debate with these people’.

Yet if those of us who support an open-border policy are going to win the argument, and win people over, then surely we need to take on the likes of MigrationWatch. The attempt to shut down the anti-immigration lobby means that the debate about immigration is never had out, and thus never won. As John Stuart Mill pointed out, the truth is so complex ‘that very few have minds sufficiently capacious and impartial’ to grasp it in its entirety; rather ‘it has to be made by the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners’ (3). Even if we were to regard the argument against eugenics, racism and limits to immigration as completely true, ‘if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth’ (4).

Pro-immigration views are in danger of becoming ‘dead dogma’ today, because the automatic response of many progressives is to silence anyone who criticises these views, branding them, as Hayter does Coleman, ‘little more than a plausible front for the BNP’. The positive case for an open society is rarely aired while MigrationWatch is slammed for publishing statistics that opponents would rather hush up – under the elitist assumption that people will react negatively to them.

The pursuit of truth through sceptical enquiry and debate is precisely the purpose of academic freedom. If we cannot have free speech and open debate at universities, then where can they exist? Hutchinson Dean tells us that he wanted to ‘open a debate on the limits of academic freedom’. The point of Mill’s insight is that there can be no imposed limits. No matter how dubious someone’s affiliations might seem, they cannot be used cheaply to discredit or undermine a point of view by association. Everyone must be allowed to express their viewpoint, and it is only through a debate about the ideas, not affiliations, that the truth may emerge.

Attempting to silence views you disagree with reveals a desire to impose your own judgements without letting others make their minds up for themselves. That has nothing to do with free thinking, which is what university life is supposed to be about – isn’t it?

Maria Grasso is researching a DPhil on the decline of political activism in Western Europe at Nuffield College, Oxford University. Lee Jones is a doctoral candidate in international politics at Nuffield College, Oxford.

(3) On Liberty, Ch. II, paragraph 36, by John Stuart Mill

(4) On Liberty, Ch. II, paragraph 21, by John Stuart Mill

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Topics Politics

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