Friday, 21 June 2024 08:27

The Guardian view on immigration: it’s not more talk we need, it’s more honesty

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It is sometimes claimed that there has been no discussion about immigration. On the contrary, for at least a generation it has been talked about relentlessly.

It is just that the conversation has never been very constructive. As a result it has often resembled a dialogue of the deaf, where the only common factor has been an offhand cruelty to every man or woman who has ever come to the UK to build a better life and finds themselves part of “them” and not of “us”. As many of the voices we publish in G2 today show, it is very easy to let even the most talented people making the most prominent contribution feel unwanted.

But for some, immigration raises atavistic fears. It challenges identity. With the best of intentions, progressive politicians watching the rise of racist parties elsewhere in Europe long ignored or denied that truth. Other politicians have exploited it, often in language that resonates with a biblical sense of apocalypse. In our immigration special today, David Blunkett, the former home secretary, apologises for using the word “swamped” in 2003. But by then, William Hague had already warned that Labour, a party he accused of “despising” the people, would let Britain become “a foreign land”. Two years later, Michael Howard, in the infamous “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” poster, repeated the implication that Labour was running a conspiracy against the people. Labour had been framed as the people’s enemy.

No wonder that, in his first conference speech as leader in 2007, Gordon Brown blundered into promising British jobs for British workers. But already there was a divorce between the political rhetoric and the actual experience of a growing number of voters. Far from helping make sense of the world and chart a course through it, facts were obscured or misrepresented. The political environment was poisoned. Goodwill is important, but honesty matters more.

In our Long Read this morning, we set out the facts. First, there was no plot to expand the workforce in order to stoke up economic growth. Tony Blair and the people around him in Downing Street grew increasingly concerned about immigration as they wrestled with the unpredictable and sometimes catastrophic impact of the crumbling world order – the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the increasingly oppressive rule of Saddam in Iraq and of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe all contributed to unprecedented pressure on the asylum system. As it creaked to a halt under the strain, it became vulnerable to abuse. For a time, the very right to asylum seemed under threat.

Then in 2004 came EU expansion and the accession of the A8, the countries that had formerly been in the Soviet bloc. Britain was ill prepared for a world where skilled workers were free to move for higher pay, particularly after Germany imposed transitional restrictions. The impact on housing, schools and local GP surgeries was severe. In Barking in east London, the BNP looked poised to take power. The fightback of its MP, Margaret Hodge, with its emphasis on talking to the white working class, was itself dismissed as racist, making it even harder to reassure existing populations while reconciling them with their new neighbours. And then the Tory framing of the debate legitimised a more extreme populism – and led to the rise of Ukip.

The (relatively) easy part is dealing with the policy questions that arise. Migration, as we reported on Friday, does produce growth from which the whole country benefits in the form of a bigger tax take. But it sometimes comes at the expense of local populations in pay and conditions as well as services, particularly when economic times are hard. Investment in the public goods paid for by economic growth should be the upside of a globalised work force.

The hard bit is the stuff that money can’t buy. The worst of the lack of a rational discourse about migration is the way it has damaged social democracy and jeopardised the sense of mutual obligation on which it depends. There are practical measures that will help. Recognising entitlement by renewing the contributory principle in benefits payments is one. Acknowledging the strengths of diversity is another. None of this is easy. But honesty is surely the first step.

Source: The Guardian

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