Immigration has not exactly been at the centre of the 2010 election, but it has probably been more widely and openly discussed than in any British general election campaign, ever. And it flared up again when Gordon Brown was caught calling an elderly voter a “bigot” after she voiced concerns about the influx of eastern Europeans.
For many “bigotgate” is not just another embarrassment for the beleaguered PM—although it is certainly that too. It is also further evidence of how the liberal elite refuses to take seriously people’s worries about the number of people coming to Britain.
Prospect editor David Goodhart has for some time argued that you can be both a liberal and a mass immigration sceptic. A few weeks ago he produced an Analysis programme on how Labour since 1997 came to embrace mass immigration. Emailing a few people in his address book to prompt them to listen to the programme, he triggered an impromptu debate…
Phillip Blond is director of the think tank ResPublica, Peter Kellner is president of YouGov, Randall Hansen is a political scientist at the University of Toronto, and Peter Jukes is a scriptwriter and Prospect contributor.
Phillip Blond: I’m very interested in all this—I wonder, is there a point at which mass immigration undermines the social foundations of a society?
Peter Kellner: Instead of “undermines the social foundations,” may I (as the son of a Jewish immigrant) suggest “alters the social character.” Then, with that more neutral wording, we can have a balanced debate about the pros and cons.
Peter Jukes: “Alters” is better than “undermines”—just to back Peter Kellner up, as the grandson of an Armenian refugee. In fact, statistically, doesn’t half the population of London have a non-English grandparent?
Randall Hansen: Writing as the grandson of neither an Armenian nor a Jewish refugee (but as an academic who has done some work on these issues), there is an established debate that seems to show fairly clear that trust and social solidarity decline as diversity increases. Not massively, but measurably. See the work of Robert Putnam in particular, and of course David’s now-classic piece (Too Diverse? Prospect, March 2004) has contributed to this point. In other words, there may be a certain trade off between high levels of immigration and strong support for the welfare state.
And even if this is not the case, it is impossible to have high levels of unskilled immigration and income support levels above the market wage, as the inevitable result is the incorporation of immigrants into welfare rather than into work. See most of north-western continental Europe. The most successful immigration countries, understood in terms of labour market incorporation, have residual welfare states: the US and Canada (whatever Canadians quaintly believe about their residual welfare state).
May I also add that we will never have an intelligent debate on these issues if some of the participants continue to claim a right of voice because of their ascriptive characteristics and/or descent. Doing so is an exercise in power—a “speech act,” to use the technical term—that implicitly devalues the arguments of anyone who does not have Jewish or Armenian grandparents. If Phillip’s question needed rephrasing (which in my view it did not), then the point can be made abstractly without embedding it in one’s family history.
Phillip Blond: Since I also have both Jewish and Irish grandparents, both of whom were immigrants into Liverpool (a city which is itself viewed as highly peculiar and indeed suspiciously romantic by the rest of England), I happily have the requisite descent to talk about such issues. I think Randall’s points are right and that immigration does seem to lessen support for strong welfare states where a notion of reciprocity (what I owe people like me) and exchangeability (it could be me without a job, etcetera) is integral to that original welfare settlement. And what particularly interests me is whether there is a difference in acceptance of immigration across Europe. Anecdotally that seems to be so: the levels of non-integration in France or Spain or Italy seem to be much higher than in Britain. It seems much harder to be a non-white immigrant on the continent than in Britain. Is that related to our construction of identity, and the fact that Britain has never really had a racial identity?
There was a time when a religious one was attempted, but in reality our identity in modern times has always been civic—and unrelated to blood and soil. Whereas on the continent, and stemming from the collapse of the Church and the rise of national monarchs who attempted to manufacture loyalty through fostering a tribal nationalism, there seems to be a strong racial determination of civic identity. I believe it began in Spain with the notion of he purity of blood following the Reconquista of Ferdinand and Isabella.
Does being civic allow a greater degree of integration and political and social acceptance? I suspect so—but what worries me about Britain is that the requirements of that civitas are now themselves so frayed that the recent, unprecedented levels of immigration have not allowed civic incorporation to do its work. Multiculturalism as a response seems to further alienate and undermine the civic compact, creating a license for ghettoisation and non-engagement. We need a renewed and strong narrative of Britishness in order to reintegrate our society into the necessarily common vision that all cultures wishing to eschew civic conflict require. Unless we renew and strengthen our civic culture, who knows what fragmentation may result. It’s striking that, just before the conflict in Yugoslavia, rates of inter-marriage there between Muslim and Christians had reached 50 per cent for certain age groups. And as David’s work has pointed out, an unacknowledged and unaddressed surge in immigration has very real consequences for those at the bottom of our society who genuinely do experience—or understand themselves to be experiencing—a collapse in their culture, economic future and their self-understanding.
Peter Jukes: This is an excellent aspiration: “We need a renewed and strong narrative of Britishness in order to reintegrate our society into the necessarily common vision that all cultures wishing to eschew civic conflict require.”
But to do so it is important to emphasise, as you do, that “Britain has never really had a racial identity.” Arising from four different nations, it never could. In throwing out the bathwater of multiculturalism, the baby of our multi-racial and multi-denominational history needs saving. It’s certainly something that makes me proud to be British.
Peter Kellner: I agree one has to be clear and unsentimental about both the pluses and minuses of immigration; but the problem with the trust-and-cohesion argument is that, in a way, it is too powerful. In general, families are more trusting units than neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods more than villages, villages more than towns and towns more than cities. The immigrant point is really an extension of this argument.
If trust and social cohesion were all that mattered, we would all live in hamlets. We don’t—the inexorable shift down the ages is for more and more of us to life in cities. This is because, in practice, most of us reckon that the advantages of city life outweigh its disadvantages. Likewise, in my view, with immigration. Yes, there are costs; but there are also benefits. I believe that the benefits outweigh the costs; and that some of the “costs” can be minimised through rational debate and enlightened thinking—such as combating racist views and instincts, and other fears of “outsiders.”
So, just as I think we need to “engineer” rather than abolish cities to maximise trust and cohesion, so too do we need to find ways to break down barriers of distrust between different ethnic groups. As Peter Jukes’s point about the composition of modern London implies, it is too late to put the clock back. We need to make multi-ethnic Britain work (or, rather, work better: one of the great British achievements of my lifetime is the way we have actually managed the extraordinary social changes that have taken place, and responded to the riots and backlashes of the late 1950s to the early 1980s).
To put it another way, I believe “the problem” is not immigration per se, but the need to maximise trust and social cohesion in an inevitably variegated society.
David Goodhart: Peter, I agree that this is not about immigration “per se”—hardly anyone is against immigration per se—but it is very much about speed and scale. Both have been far too great in the last 12 years, making it much harder to do that smoothing work that is necessary. I don’t think it is good enough for us enlightened liberals to simply tell the deluded masses that they are suffering from false consciousness. For people to extend their idea of “us” to outsiders, of whatever colour or origin, they have to feel that their interests are not being undermined in any way by those outsiders—and that the outsiders have some commitment to the thing they are joining. That means we have to get the economics right (especially at the bottom of the pile) and we have to get integration right. Alas, although Labour has invented some useful new markers of citizenship, we have done neither properly in the past 12 years