Immigration anxiety is in decline, partly because our borders are now more secure. We don't need a capby Liam Byrne / October 25, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
For many years, perhaps since the Corn Law debates, then the age of empire, and, later, the world wars, Britain has stood broadly on the side of “open.” I don’t think we can take this predisposition for granted any more. In fact, there is a risk that voters will soon start to make different choices—voting for a bit more protectionism, a bit less foreign aid, a bit less Europe and feeling a bit less comfortable about strangers.
This is the challenge for progressives today: to make the case that “carefully open” is good. To give people a fair chance to succeed and a sense that the old rules, laws and traditions won’t be thrown away. In other words, in this new world, Britain still needs to feel like home.
Immigration and citizenship policy is fundamental to this debate. This is partly because immigration is such a visible sign of change. As the pollsters say, it becomes a “vortex issue,” sucking in concerns about all kinds of change and social disruption.
Immigration ministers across all western countries have politically complicated day jobs because we wrestle with a paradox. On the one hand, we know that immigration is generally good for our economies. But on the other, the political market is simply for tighter control.
The cause of conflict is simple. British people are, rightly, not just making a cash calculation. They are making an ethical demand. They want to be clear that only the newcomers we need are allowed to come. And they want to be clearer still that only those who buy into some basic British values are going to be allowed to stay. They think that there is such a thing as society, and they don’t want to feel it is fracturing.
The immigration debate has moved on since the 1960s, when it was scarred by the language of colour. But what has not changed is the concern over whether public services can cope—and whether shared standards will be put under unsustainable pressure.