Immigration: attitudes are not the problem

Never mind changing ‘how the public thinks’ about immigration. How about changing immigration law?

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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For a topic that is rarely out of the news, it is striking how often the word ‘immigration’ is followed by terms like ‘sensitive’, ‘controversial’ and ‘taboo’. Politicians and commentators frequently call for a level-headed, sensible, calm debate about immigration, and demand that the issue be ‘deracialised’.

Yet while members of the political and media elite insist that immigration should not be turned into a political football – preferring instead to discuss migrants as either economically useful or economically draining – they are quite happy to use it as a way of hectoring native Britons. In much of the debate about immigration today, British-born people are seen as the main problem – they are variously empathised with for feeling alienated as a result of increased migration, or chided for not acknowledging the multicultural benefits that immigrants bring to Britain.

Of course, immigrants are still regularly scapegoated for social ills – from crime to poor public services to allegedly rising ‘cultural tensions’. But there is also a tradition amongst British politicians of using immigration to communicate concerns about the attitudes of the settled population. Whether it is couched in the shrill language of Enoch Powell or in the understanding tone of current UK immigration minister, Liam Byrne, lobbying for restrictions on free movement in the name of British citizens is a recurring trend.

A new report published by the British think-tank the Work Foundation expresses both the ‘econo-centric’ approach to immigration (where immigrants are judged only by their economic worth) and the view that a major obstacle to accepting immigrants into Britain is the British public itself (1).

Towards a Global Labour Market? does make a welcome case for accepting more skilled foreign workers into Britain; it says the government should actively encourage them to come here. It also criticises the government’s new points-based system (PBS), which permits the arrival of migrants with certain useful skills, arguing that it will fail to ensure that sufficient numbers of highly skilled workers come to the UK. We are at risk, says the Work Foundation, of having a shortage of workers in areas such as IT, healthcare, science and technology.

Highly skilled migrants are prioritised under the government’s PBS, which only applies to non-EU nationals. Yet even the criteria for receiving a visa if you are a highly skilled person have been tightened in recent years. The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP), introduced five years ago, was a relatively progressive move (certainly by New Labour standards), offering permanent residence to applicants who have lived and worked in Britain for four or more years. But in a dramatic U-turn that is typical of this government, officials changed the criteria last year, placing less emphasis on work experience and instead favouring immigrants with the rare combination of high earnings and low age. Because these alterations applied even to migrants who had arrived under the old rules, many who thought they were secure in the UK had to return home, jobless.

Yet while the report of the Work Foundation acknowledges that entry criteria for highly skilled migrants need to be relaxed, it does not see restrictive immigration policies as the main problem. Instead of calling for the PBS and other draconian immigration controls to be abolished – which would permit migrants real freedom of movement – the Work Foundation says the government must try to change its own and other people’s attitudes.

Britain, and the European Union more broadly, ‘must change to a more positive attitude’ and provide ‘the right social and cultural infrastructure’. The report says that firms are a step ahead of governments, because they are explicit about the need to attract highly skilled migrants – and it says governments are a step ahead of the public, who apparently are too closed-minded about migration. Ultimately, says the report, public opinion, if left uncorrected, could prevent the much-needed flow of highly skilled labour into Britain.

The report asserts that ‘well-educated workers with a high income are rather unlikely competitors for social housing or healthcare against a British worker on the minimum wage’ and that ‘highly skilled migration is a less contentious issue in the public discourse than low-skilled migration’. However, ‘it is often difficult to disentangle these issues in the public and political debate’, and so it is ‘important to separate migrant labour pools – highly skilled migrants are both in theory and practice very different from other migrants, and governments must be braver in convincing the public of the benefits of highly skilled migration’.

There could hardly be a more explicit statement of how foreigners are now assessed according to their economic worth alone. The report effectively puts a price tag on migrants, arguing that the government must prioritise the more exclusive goods (that’s highly skilled workers), while also convincing the natives that these exclusive, well-educated, hard-working individuals will not be a threat to them or their way of life. In one fell swoop, the Work Foundation solidifies the view of migrants as little more than economic machines and argues that the real barrier to free migration is the public’s cluttered-up minds.

While politicians, policymakers and campaigners take much care to ‘unhinge’ the immigration debate from the race debate, their new price-tagging approach is no less demeaning. And it allows politicians to hide behind the comparatively neutral language of economics while blaming the public for being unreconstructed in their attitudes towards immigrants. We should be dismantling immigration controls, not people’s psyches.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

(1) You can download the report ‘Towards a Global Labour Market? Globalisation and the Knowledge Economy’ from the Work Foundation website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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