The strangers in our midst
David Miller talks migration, national self-determination and the importance of integration.
David Miller, a political theorist at the University of Oxford, has long been interested in the idea of justice, in particular social justice. But this concern has evolved in recent decades, leading Miller to focus on the nature and make-up of contemporary political communities, especially around ideas of citizenship and national identity, an interest he pursued in On Nationality (1995), Citizenship and National Identity (2000) and National Responsibility and Global Justice (2007). Then, in 2016, Miller went further. He ventured into what was becoming highly charged political territory, with the thoughtful but provocative Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration. It displays a humane thinker, one unafraid to confront the problems posed by immigration, while never losing sight of our responsibility to others.
The spiked review decided to catch up with Miller to talk migration, national self-determination and the importance of integration. Here’s what he had to say:
spiked review: There are now assorted challenges to national sovereignty, from international law and the idea of human rights to the existence of transnational institutions like the EU and the forces of global capitalism. Would you defend national sovereignty today? And, if so, how?
David Miller: I would defend national self-determination, which is not quite the same as national sovereignty. Sovereignty suggests exclusive control, a case of one body, one state, controlling everything that happens in that society, and completely immune to any external challenges. And I think that model of sovereignty, which was relevant for two or three centuries up until the 20th century, has been modified, in part, because of changes within nation states, such as devolution.
If you start with national self-determination, where you have a country like the UK, or Belgium, or Canada, which has national minorities within it, you’d want an arrangement whereby powers were divided between the centre and the minority areas. You could say that sovereignty has been parcelled out. So I wouldn’t want to make a fetish of sovereignty, but I would argue for national self-determination, at the level of both a larger community, and the smaller one inside it. They would both have rights of self-determination, to control, broadly speaking, what goes on within their areas.
review: But do you think you can have a workable idea of national self-determination within the context of the EU, for instance?
Miller: I think the EU has certainly been a constraint on national self-determination. The EU has generated a lot of legislation on matters that did not need to be decided at the EU level. But it hasn’t entirely abolished national self-determination in many areas, such as war and peace, where even EU member states retain something like the traditional rights associated with sovereignty. But, yes, in other policy areas, there has been some erosion.
Of course, as a self-determining nation, one thing you can decide to do is join with other nations, and agree to implement policy together, for example when facing a challenge like global warming, when you are going to need international cooperation. And these agreements can be delivered from below, by democratic mechanisms within states.
But I think that it’s true that, in some cases, international organisations have been placing limits on self-determination that are not entirely justified.
review: Do you think it’s dangerous that the main form of self-determination – the democratic will of nation states – is being ignored by those championing open borders?
Miller: Well, at one level, it clearly is the case that electorates’ concern with open borders is being ignored, because if you polled people, asking whether governments should have control over borders, you get very large majorities (not just in the UK, but in most of Europe) in favour government having control over borders. So open borders, in that sense, are being rejected by national electorates.
Having said that, there are clearly a wide range of views within countries over how closed or how open borders should be; how many people should come in; and what kind of people. There is a high degree of disagreement, which, to some extent, reflects the different interests of people within society. So I think it would be hard to say that there is an agreed democratic will on the precise level and nature of immigration. But there is clearly agreement on the basic issue of whether the state should be able to have an immigration policy and control who comes through its borders.
review: Do you feel that ‘the anxieties, resentments and prejudices felt by native citizens toward many (though not all) immigrants’, as you put it, are too easily dismissed by policymakers and academics?
Miller: I think there’s been a lack of understanding of the reasons why people have been concerned over immigration. I think it’s because the direct impact of immigration is very often felt much more acutely by people who are not part of the elite group, which policymakers and academics are largely part of. The impact of immigration is felt by those in places where migrants come in and often take low-skilled jobs, contribute to pressure on housing, schooling, hospitals and so on.
I also think that to some extent the different impacts that immigration has have a cultural dimension. Policymakers and academics will tend to have a cosmopolitan outlook, partly because they’re used to interacting with people from other societies. Whereas I think immigration can be more disturbing for those who are used to things being done in a particular way – the way people live on a day-to-day basis. So they have to adapt to people coming in who have slightly different habits and customs, and that has a different kind of impact for the more rooted than the more cosmopolitan. Sometimes, not always, there is a tendency among cosmopolitan-minded people to characterise people’s reactions as being xenophobic, when actually it may be to do with more practical things like service shortages, pressures on the labour market, housing and so on. So I think, yes, there has been a pronounced underestimation of the impact of immigration on many people’s everyday lives.
review: You use the term ‘cosmopolitan’ – how useful do you think that distinction is between a cosmopolitan attitude, and a more local, rooted attitude?
Miller: Cosmopolitanism is a very loose term. It can stand for a political view, or a cultural outlook, how far you think of yourself as rooted in one place, or the extent to which you feel you can live in many places, and will be equally happy in all of them. But I think the term does denote a real difference, one that correlates with social class and age – young middle-class people, for various reasons, are more likely to have a more cosmopolitan sense of identity. It’s not that they entirely lack a sense of belonging, but maybe their sense of their fate being tied up with the flourishing of that particular country and that particular local community is less strong. They have the sense that they could, if necessary, go elsewhere, and live just as happily.
So it’s a concept, and distinction, that is real.
review: To what extent should we want or expect immigrants to integrate into a host society?
Miller: It is reasonable to expect immigrants to integrate. Integration is a quite complex process. It has different dimensions. Some of these are political – we should expect immigrants, particularly those who are going to stay long term, to adapt to the political values and procedures of the society in question. If they want to be full members of the society, then they need to adapt to those political values and principles.
But I think also there are reasons for wanting social integration in a broader sense, so that immigrants don’t solely cluster together, interacting solely with other immigrants. After all, from immigrants’ perspective, the lack of integration is likely to be a barrier to opportunity. So if we want a society of equal opportunity, we should try to bring it about that when immigrants arrive they have plenty of contacts with people outside their community of origin. And as far as the health of the whole society is concerned, I think there is a danger of polarisation if you get very divided and clustered communities. I think that was one of the main issues underpinning the race riots in Oldham, Bradford and Harehills back in the early 2000s. Part of the problem was the lack of social connection between the different groups, and the absence of people who could bridge between them when there was conflict.
So I think integration is a very important and should be actively pursued by societies that are to receive immigrants.
review: Do you think that integration is rendered more difficult by the ascendancy of ideologies like multiculturalism, which seem to encourage and celebrate a certain degree of separation, perhaps even segregation?
Miller: Multiculturalism is another slippery, rather ambiguous term, and it can mean very different things. Where it works, say the Canadian version, you have a combination of accomodations made to incoming minorities – those with different religious backgrounds or other cultural differences – together with very active attempts to include them in a common national identity. So you combine cultural accommodation with active nation building, and that, I think, can produce a fair result.
Where multiculturalism has come under fire, as in certain European countries, it is when it involves the idea that cultures are so distinct and so isolated that there is no sense in which it is permissible to intervene or to shape and to mould cultures in such a way that they become compatible with the identity of the whole society. Such cultural blocs are off limits, and you just have to accept it. It’s that form of multiculturalism that has come under criticism.
The former version, which combines some accomodation with nation building, is probably the best way to approach immigration and integration.
review: Is there not another problem? Namely, into what are we asking immigrants to integrate? After all, one of the striking aspects of discussions about national citizenship over the past couple of decades has been the uncertainty as to what our national identity is or should be.
Miller: I’m not sure there’s such a big problem. It’s often hard looking from within what national identity amounts to, and it’s often a lot easier to see it looking in from the outside.
There are different dimensions to national identity. First, there’s the political, that is, the basic underlying political principles of a society, say, freedom, justice, rule of law, toleration and so on. I don’t think they’re difficult to specify.
Second, there are a society’s shared social norms that make it function, and, I think, looking from within they’re harder to see. To take a recent example, there was a piece in the Guardian about Finland, asking why this small, cold country scored so highly on a lot of international indices – the nicest country in which to live, the most equal and so on. As the article went on, it highlighted the various aspects of Finnish culture that made it work so successfully – habits of cooperation, etc. Looking in from the outside, we can say that these are the features that made Finland special and made it work so well. They’re the intangible things that may not be that obvious to those of us within a society, but they’re things that outsiders can identify.
We don’t want immigrants to be carbon copies of the people who are already here. We want them to bring some diversity and variety with them, but we also, insofar as there good things about the culture we have, want them to pick those good things up.
So I don’t think there is as big a problem about knowing who we are, as is sometimes said. Of course, we argue and disagree politically about all kinds of things, but I believe that underlying that there is more commonality than is often acknowledged.
review: You make a case for ‘weak cosmopolitanism’ – that states are obliged to respect non-citizens’ human rights or basic needs. Are there situations, such as the current migrant crisis in Europe, where even that obligation can be trumped by national interests?
Miller: It’s clearly an important limitation on sovereignty and self-determination that it cannot be exercised in a way that violates the human rights of the outsider. What I think the migration crisis highlighted is that what’s at stake is the question of who has the responsibility to protect the rights of people outside a society. It’s not just a question of not violating people’s rights; it’s also about actively protecting them, by, for example, taking migrants in as refugees, or helping them in other ways, or supporting them in other places. If you put the question like that, then it’s clear it becomes a shared responsibility.
So in the case of the Syrian crisis, this was a responsibility shared by European states, being the regional players, as it were. So my own view is that the EU was correct to try to develop a scheme that would ask each state to take in a certain number of refugees. But I think it was a bad mistake when, instead of that, the refugees were allowed to move somewhat freely into whichever society was willing to take them, which turned out to be Germany and Sweden.
If you start from the perspective that it’s a shared responsibility, and migrants should be distributed by some group like the EU, then the hope and expectation would be that there’s no real clash between the rights of outsiders and the interests of receiving states. Because what they’re being asked to do is relatively moderate.
Now you can think of catastrophic circumstances in which that might not be the case. There you would have a tragic conflict of moral values. But I don’t think we’re near there yet, and we certainly haven’t been there in the past three years. So the hope is you can reconcile the interests of self-determining nations with the rights of outsiders.
review: Do you think that one of the problems is that immigration, or border measures, are simply imposed on national populations, with very little or often no consultation? They experience the opening of borders, of migration, as something they just have to accept. Think of the migrant crisis, and of Angela Merkel, rather than discussing measures with German citizens, deciding instead to cast aspersions on her fellow east Germans and their attitudes towards migrants. Those German citizens were never addressed, never part of a conversation about immigration, refugees, or what should happen.
Miller: Yes, on immigration more generally, and refugees in particular, there ought to be a conversation about the numbers of people who should be allowed in, about how they’re handled and received, and what kind of civil society associations should help them integrate and so on. Insofar as people are concerned about immigration, one of the ways to address that is not just to shut off the debate, as is often the case, but to involve people in it – to ask who do you want to see coming in, or in the cases where we feel we have an obligation to the refugees, to ask how best to handle it. Should we, for example, try to make sure refugees who arrive are dispersed so that different towns and cities take certain numbers, and have proper methods of receiving, of providing houses.
One of the main problems with Merkel’s position was that it was taken rather suddenly and without adequate consultation, even with her own political colleagues.
review: I do wonder if – and you mentioned this earlier – the cosmopolitan attitudes of the political class mean they barely think about immigration as a problem, because they barely consider the concerns of more rooted national citizens as legitimate.
Miller: Yes, one way of putting it is that people think too little about the circumstances in which liberal democracies were created, and have been sustained. If you look back on history, the broad story is that nation states were established over a period of time, sorting out the remnants of feudalism and so on, and that once borders had been defined, and identities consolidated, then first liberal and later democratic institutions were created. And I think that there can be an assumption that once you have this democracy, then it’s there for good, with no possibility of collapse. And I think that’s a mistake. Because the one thing that nations and national identities do, is provide the kind of solidarity you need to make democratic institutions work. After all, people have a sufficient degree of trust in one another that when they lose an election, they’re quite happy to hand over power to the other side, on the grounds that the other side, although they possess a different political worldview, is also part of your community. There is a lack of historical understanding among people who do believe in liberal and democratic principles, but neglect the historical and social basis of those principles.
review: Has there been a tendency among a political and cultural elite to conflate a sense of the nation and, as you say, solidarity, with forms of national chauvinism and, at its most extreme, to dismiss a sense of nationhood as xenophobic or racist?
Miller: Now there are people who are xenophobic and people who are racist, no question. But the basic idea of a nation is of a group that shares some features in common, and has a sense of solidarity. And you can have that and feel a loyalty to your own country, while at the same time celebrating other nations manifesting the same sense of solidarity and identity.
To have some belief in nationality doesn’t mean that yours is the only nation that has this feeling. If you look at the growth of nationalism in the 19th century, you’ll see that people were concerned with the interests of their own country, but they also ran around and supported nation-building projects in other places. To have a belief in the importance of one’s national identity does not entail being negative about other people’s. It’s just that you have a special affection for your own.
David Miller is a professor of political theory, and an official fellow of Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration, published by Harvard University Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture by: Getty.