The real reason the bishop likes migrants

Archbishop Rowan Williams is ‘pro-immigration’ only in the sense that he hopes the arrival of foreigners will remind Britain of its core values.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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This week, the head of the Church of England, Archbishop Rowan Williams, gave what has been widely interpreted (and welcomed) as a pro-immigration speech. He talked about how migrants had enriched British national life, and how refugees such as Sigmund Freud or Karl Popper had quickened our national intellect. And he didn’t once mention limits or caps or points systems.

Sponsored by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics, Williams’ lecture was also seen as a much-needed rejoinder to his predecessor George Carey’s comments earlier this year. Back in January, Lord Carey, a member of a cross-party parliamentary group called Balanced Migration, weighed into the discussion around immigration with a nasty little piece in The Times (London). He warned that not only do ‘the sheer numbers of migrants from within Europe and elsewhere put the resources of Britain under enormous pressure’, but they also ‘threaten the very ethos or DNA of our nation’.

At first glance, Williams’ lecture appears diametrically opposed to Carey’s ripped-off Malthusianism. Towards the end of his lecture, Williams said: ‘This is perhaps the moment to note that the vocal anxieties we hear from some quarters about the survival of “British identity” in the face of migrants and refugees betrays a lack of proper confidence in the capacity and the commitment of our society both to learn and to teach. It suggests a confusion about what matters to us and why.’

Williams’ assessment of British people seems, on the surface of things, to be praiseworthy. His suggestion that native Britons are capable of living alongside migrants is certainly preferable to Carey’s miserable prognoses, not to mention his just-about-concealed racism (national DNA, for Christ’s sake!). In contrast to Carey, Williams’ lecture is littered with near-joyous, libertarian sentiment, with passages that might even have got a nod of approval from John Stuart Mill. For instance, he calls for ‘the need for access to [dissenting] arguments on the part of all citizens’, because it will lead to ‘an intellectually lively society’. He even calls for an ‘argumentative democracy’.

A vital, questioning society such as Williams evokes does indeed depend on freedom – of speech, expression and, no doubt, movement. But there’s a problem here: Williams isn’t really talking about freedom in itself. And this is why he’s not really defending migration as a freedom. Rather, migration for Williams functions as a means to a rather narrow and elitist end, as an instrument for the betterment of society.

As he puts it, migrants are a ‘gift’ because they ‘help… us see who we are’. This is a revealing formulation. He is saying that the migrant, that migration itself, reveals something about British society to its members, something which, without migration as a mirror, British society would lack. Migration, in Williams’ view, shows the nation what it really is and what its virtues are. So in the faces of people ‘not from round here’, we can recognise that we are, as a society, open and ‘tolerant’. For Williams, the usefulness of the migrant is that he makes people confront their prejudices and reminds a disorientated British society what its core values apparently are.

As Brendan O’Neill argued in a recent spiked essay, this is a very New Labour strategy: the use of immigration as a tool to educate British citizenry in the vague values – tolerance, diversity and so on – of the contemporary elite. According to a policy document from 2000 (obtained under the Freedom of Information act earlier this year), the government was keen to exploit the ‘social benefits’ of immigration. Whereas before New Labour, immigration policy was dominated by an economic rationale, now it was argued that ‘migration policy has both social and economic impacts and should be designed to contribute to the government’s overall objectives on both counts’.

It is these social objectives that Williams articulates. This is not because he is some sort of New Labour apparatchik. Rather it testifies to the extent to which Britain’s elite, whether secular or religious, has found itself unable to call upon the past for a raison d’être. This is why immigration becomes important: it serves as a means for institutional reinvention, a vital tool in the modernising process. It allows the church and state to provide Britain with a sense of itself, to showcase what Britain is and what Britain is for – openness, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism.

At spiked we have always argued that migrants are not responsible for any number of social, economic or infrastructural problems. This is a case, as O’Neill put it, of ‘projecting political failings on to families from overseas’. It is no more than a cynical and opportunist blame game. Yet just as migration is not the cause of any sort of social cataclysm, no matter what Carey and his cronies at the Palace of Westminster might have you believe, neither is it, as Williams would have us believe, a means to tell us what we as a society stand for. In both instances – in both the Carey worldview and the Williams worldview – immigrants are seen as tools for the re-education of British society and its inhabitants. It’s just that where Carey wants to keep them out in order to avoid inflaming Britons’ alleged hatefulness and fascistic tendencies, Williams wants to let them in as a way of reminding us all to be good and tolerant. Different policy outlooks, same elitist end.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill said that, under New Labour, immigration was turned into a tool for social engineering, and that being ‘pro-migrant’ is now a form of cultural snobbery. Nathalie Rothschild argued that, when it comes to immigration, the public’s attitude is not the problem. Elsewhere, she said immigration should be a political football. Or read more at spiked issue Immigration.

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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