Immigration should be a political football

The evacuation of morality from the immigration debate has given rise to a dehumanised view of migrants as numbers on a spreadsheet.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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In response to the UK House of Lords’ report on immigration, published yesterday, Nathalie Rothschild calls for ‘politics not maths’ on the migration issue. Further below, Alka Sehgal argues that the Lords are exploiting pessimism.

It is often said that too many people treat immigration as a political football. Politicians and broadsheet newspapers warn against turning immigration into an ‘overly politicised’ issue, and instead advise us to have calm, cool-headed, fact-driven discussions of this potentially volatile issue.

In truth, the debate about immigration is not political enough. Instead, immigration is discussed in an increasingly narrow, utilitarian, economic fashion, with migrants judged as being either good for the economy or bad for the economy. This demonstrates the evacuation of political principle and morality from the immigration debate: those who are for immigration seem incapable of putting the stand-up argument for migrants’ freedom of movement, while those who oppose immigration also hide behind economic ‘facts’ in order to avoid venturing a political argument against migration.

A new report on immigration from the UK House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee, published yesterday, shows just how depoliticised immigration policies and debates have become in government circles and elsewhere. The report proposes an annual cap on immigration into the UK, an idea first promoted by the Conservative Party. It concludes that there is ‘no evidence for the argument, made by the government, business and many others, that net immigration – immigration minus emigration – generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population’ (1).

In a press conference yesterday, UK prime minister Gordon Brown rejected the cap proposal and insisted that business has in fact benefited from immigration (2). The current Labour government already shapes many of its immigration policies on economic grounds. Immigration minister Liam Byrne always makes sure to highlight that the government only allows in migrants who are ‘useful’ to the UK; his ‘points-based system’, introduced in February, sets quotas for migrant workers and shuts out anyone deemed ‘not useful’ for the jobs market. So the Lords are attacking the government on its own grounds, asking it to clarify and tighten, rather than radically change, its policies on immigration. There is no major political disagreement here, so much as a tit-for-tat argument about facts and figures. This is maths more than politics.

This is clear from the fact that, while Brown argued that migrants can be ‘good for business’, he and his government ministers were sober about the Lords’ report, even welcoming it, seeking to reassure everyone that the government shares the Lords’ concerns about uncapped (that is, free) migration in general.

The Lords committee said the government should review its policies on immigration and clarify the objectives of its new points-based system (PBS). Byrne welcomed this request, insisting that the Australian-style PBS, his pride and joy, coupled with the ‘earned citizenship programme’, already does a quite good job of keeping out non-useful individuals (3). So while the Labour government rejects the ‘capping’ proposal, its PBS, which applies only to non-EU nationals, already works to ensure that relatively low numbers of ‘useful’ migrants get into the UK. It replaces the existing 80 different work permits and entry schemes for migrants with five new ‘tiers’ within which people applying to work in the UK will be categorised: highly skilled; skilled with job offer; low skilled; students; temporary workers/youth mobility.

Employers who hire staff under tier two (‘skilled with job offer’) must ‘sponsor’ the worker, and there are strict criteria for sponsorship; in many cases, this is likely to mean that employers will decide to avoid the hassle and go for the simpler option of hiring an EU national rather than a non-EU ‘tiered worker’. No date has been set for tier three (‘low skilled’) to be activated, as the government believes that all low-skilled work can be covered by EU nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe. In other words, we don’t need any low-skilled workers from Asia, Africa or Latin America at the moment – you aren’t ‘useful’ for our economy, so please stay away. Overseas students can stay in Britain as long as they pay their university fees, but will not be welcome after they finish their studies. Even cultural programmers have to go through a draining, bureaucratic visa application process to bring over foreign artists for temporary events in the UK.

The Lords and the government only have a technical disagreement on immigration: the Lords want a tougher cap than the government is currently placing on freedom of movement. Yesterday, Philippe Legrain, author of Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, provided an excellent list of reasons why the Lords’ report is wrong to claim that foreign workers bring few economic benefits to Britain (4). Migration, says Legrain, actually makes the economy more flexible, dynamic and competitive. It stimulates innovation and enterprise and adds to cultural and creative diversity.

If immigration policies had always been guided by a points-based system, Legrain notes, then talented individuals like the 21 foreign-born Brits who have won the Nobel Prize would have been kept out of the UK, and may not have contributed significant discoveries in science which have had positive global impacts. So immigration has unexpected consequences that are impossible for the government’s Migration Advisory Committee – or anyone else for that matter – to predict.

It is always useful to have facts and figures at hand when defending migration, of course. But facts and figures are never sufficient. We also need to make the moral case for unfettered freedom of movement for migrants – and that case is notable by its absence today. Instead, where Lords and ministers worry that some migrants are not economically useful, the defenders of immigration insist they are economically useful. Indeed, one could argue that the government’s PBS and the discussions about capping spring from the pro-immigration lobby’s narrow focus on the economic benefits of immigration; the economic view has now been co-opted by the authorities as a justification for letting some of them in and keeping lots of them out. The discussion of immigration has become devoid of values and principle.

This ‘battle’ to prove or debunk economical claims about immigration suggests that all sides in the debate find it difficult to justify their stance in political or moral terms. This fits into a pattern of politics becoming more and more evidence-driven. As Frank Furedi has argued elsewhere on spiked: ‘In the Anglo-American world, officials now promote policies on the grounds that they are ‘evidence based’ rather than because they are “right” or “good”. In policymaking circles, the language of “right” and “wrong” has been displaced by the phrase: “The research shows…”’ (see Politicising science, by Frank Furedi.)

Isn’t it time we had a political fight about immigration, with those of us who support free movement putting the case for why it is right and proper rather than only volunteering useful statistics and pie charts? There is a danger that, in always putting the economic argument, pro-immigration activists collude in the dehumanisation of migrants into ‘useful’ and ‘non-useful’ categories.

Playing the numbers game reinforces the idea that immigration needs to be restricted in some way. It’s not enough to come up with better evidence, clearer figures and sharper statistics than those provided by the Lords or the government. We need to put the moral argument against the authorities’ utilitarian view of migration and for freedom of movement, on the basis that migrants are more than numbers on a spreadsheet; they are individuals expressing their agency and free will by moving around the world in search of a better life. You can’t quantify something like that. Such movement is not always ‘useful’, but it’s inspiring.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

by Alka Sehgal

So, the House of Lords’ Economic Affairs Committee has decided that immigration may increase GDP, but this is irrelevant because it does not increase GDP per capita. In other words, the living standards of people like you and me are not directly improved by immigrants.

The Lords’ report also claims that immigrants are pushing up house prices, thus keeping young families off the housing ladder. Of course, Britain’s chronic housing problem has nothing to do with the fact that more houses were built in the 1950s than have been built since – or the stultifying impact of planning laws, which protect vast swathes of green belt land from any kind of housebuilding. No, how much easier to blame the housing problem on ‘them’.

The authors of the Lords’ report seem to believe that the British public is incapable of thinking beyond its own immediate ‘economic wellbeing’. The Lords’ message seems to amount to: Worried about your mortgage? Blame them. Worried about the cost of living? Blame them. Worried about disruptive schoolchildren? Blame them. Can’t see a doctor when you need to? Blame them. After all, ‘they’ are the ones putting loads of pressure on our public services.

Does anyone really believe that if you stopped immigrants coming to Britain we would all live in decent houses, get to see doctors whenever we liked, and all of our kids would attend fantastic schools? If immigrants didn’t do the unskilled work that Britain’s youth don’t want to do, the Lords’ report argues, then the government would have to provide more training for Britain’s own youth. Great – more of those patronising, dull vocational courses than have high dropout rates in colleges across the nation.

Amidst all the familiar scapegoating, there are two striking things about the Lords’ report. One is the emphasis on linking immigration to individual economic wellbeing rather than exploring its broader social and cultural effects. Just what is an individual’s ‘economic wellbeing’, and how does immigration adversely affect it? Most people’s ‘wellbeing’ could be said to be higher than ever before, if we consider, for example, the number of foreign holidays people take, or the rise in sales of consumer goods. In fact, it could be argued, as some pro-immigration thinkers do, that without unskilled immigrants to clean, waitress, babysit and so on, lots of people in Britain would be worse off.

By using the term ‘wellbeing’, borrowed from ersatz therapy, the report’s authors both express and reinforce today’s prevailing trend for translating complex and specific social and political problems into a mish-mash of individual cod psychology. An individual’s sense of wellbeing is the product of a complex interaction of subjective and objective factors. To suggest that it is simply an economic thing, shaped by GDP, suggests that people are only self-interested and one-dimensional. People can be materially better off, and yet still feel a sense of unfocused dissatisfaction and have a general perception of decline. The Lords’ report obscures and evades analysis, and instead panders to this common pessimistic outlook. We are encouraged to see ourselves as hard done by, and to blame immigrants as an almost automatic reflex, without thought and without question.

The second noteworthy thing about the report is its petty, mean-minded and misanthropic tone. Having recently returned from Calcutta, I was struck by the number of people, both city natives and migrants, who made the city so vibrant. Yes, there are beggars, and it is hot, sweaty and sometimes smelly, but the city also buzzes with energy. Evidence of India’s economic growth shone in beautiful modernist buildings around Salt Lake, unfinished but full of future promise; evidence of India’s colonial past remains in the grand roads around the Victoria Memorial and St John’s Church. But linking it all, breathing life into the metropolis, are the people themselves, insiders, outsiders, all sorts.

In debates about immigration you can argue forever about how many jobs are created or lost, or about whether immigration adds to or deducts from the nation’s purse. But ultimately it comes down to how we see ourselves. Should we be a fearful people unable to put our collective energies to use in seeking solutions to social, technical and political problems – or can we do better than that?

Alka Sehgal is reading for a PhD in the disappearance of British identity.

(1) Peers cast doubt on immigration benefits, Reuters, 1 April 2008

(2) Brown’s press conference – main points, Guardian, 1 April 2008

(3) Immigration is not a benefit to the economy and should be cut, say peers, The Times, 1 April 2008

(4) Clueless in the Lords, Guardian, 1 April 2008

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Topics Politics


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