We need a serious national conversation on immigrationby David Goodhart / January 25, 2013 / Leave a comment
Last week saw two notable interventions in Britain’s rolling debate about immigration and integration. Both of them felt rather anachronistic, almost historical commentaries on a debate that has since moved on. First was another speech from Eric Pickles, the secretary of state for communities and local government, which had nothing new to say by way of analysis or proposals—beyond the usual plea for newcomers to learn English. This is despite the fact that he was speaking just a few weeks after a vast deluge of new information emerged about integration, or the lack of it, from the 2011 census. More of Pickles later.
The other intervention came from Matt Cavanagh and Sarah Mulley from the IPPR, who proposed a new list of basic principles that should guide progressive thinking about immigration. Matt is a friend and someone I have learnt from: he was often a voice of reason on these issues when Labour was in power and he worked for David Blunkett and later Gordon Brown. (Sarah I know less well.) This is an ambitious and in some ways admirable project—trying to establish some first principles for the centre left—but I can’t help thinking it is at least 10 years too late.
First some things about the statement that are welcome and sensible and have not always been said so unequivocally from the centre left: public concerns about immigration are real and legitimate, and in most cases do not stem from racism; the public are not just dupes of a reactionary media, so better communication of the “correct” attitude is not a sensible approach; cultural and psychological factors matter as well as economic ones and countries do have an absorptive capacity; and the distributional effects of immigration should be central to the economic benefit argument.
What I don’t like so much is the fact that there is also plenty of rather elaborate restatement of very familiar, and mainly unexamined, centre-left views: there is the standard triangulation trope, and the surely inaccurate claim that the most prominent voices in this debate are often “extreme ones”; the current government’s policies are dismissed as wrong and damaging largely without evidence or argument including the standard attack on the “tens of thousands” target as raising expectations that are likely to be disappointed (though to be fair the IPPR has gone into more detail on this elsewhere); and there is the underpinning assumption that immigration is of significant economic benefit, even if there are costs that arise from it.