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
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.
Anxiety about immigration has not gone away, but it is far less acute than it was two years ago. That is partly because numbers have been dropping off but also because we have been busy creating a new system to control who comes to work and live here. After two years of reform, the system is almost in place. The points system, which starts this autumn, takes two lots of evidence into account: the needs of business (through the new, independent Migration Advisory Committee), and the views of frontline public servants (on the Migration Impacts Forum), who tell us where migration is putting pressure on public services.
These independent committees help us run migration policy in the open—not a dark room at the home office. And they help us manage with evidence, not anecdote. With the needs of business on the table, and feedback from public services, we can strike a new balance in migration policy—and, yes, I think that will mean that fewer economic migrants will come.
But I do not support the idea—floated by Nicholas Soames and Frank Field—of an annual cap. They just pluck numbers out of the air. From a Thatcherite and a Blairite, it’s odd that we hear not a word about the needs of businesses to hire the skilled people they need. And because the points system covers students, it controls nearly three times as many people as a cap. If you’re serious about controlling migration, points beats caps hands down.
But even if we manage flows well, the public will still worry about over-rapid change to their communities. This is why we plan to change the law so it is clear that newcomers have to “earn” citizenship, and show they sign up to some British basics; obeying the law, making an effort to integrate, paying tax, working hard and speaking English before they receive full citizenship privileges, including benefits. If economic migrants don’t want to join, then we won’t let them stay.
Immigration is part of the reason that today there is a bigger appetite for shared standards in Britain. But, Britain is not a racist country. Far from it. We’re actually pretty interested in diversity. We believe in our right to be different—eccentric, even.
As I spent four months going round Britain last year talking to hundreds of people about immigration reform, the thing that struck me is that we’re simply not a nation of Alf Garnetts. But I could also see that unless we take action to strengthen shared standards, we will run the risk of our national life breaking up into a sort of cultural archipelago of ever smaller islands—growing further and further apart.
This is why the changes we are making to the immigration system are part of a wider agenda—a new era of civic inventiveness, as Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame calls it—where we think hard about the things we have got in common and put them on show. Celebrate them. Give them a salute. Make them part of everyday life.
The British bill of rights and duties is a chance to set out a picture of the contract that binds us together. The Olympics will be a giant stage for Britain to set out our national story. Renewed investment in the sites, landmarks and monuments of our heritage provides not just a way of enticing tourists to Britain, but a focus for local interest and pride. For the same reason, we will also continue debating the idea of a national day.
Politicians cannot, of course, conjure this kind of “civic religion” out of thin air—it must come from society itself, and it takes time. But politics can give it a frame and some language. And that is what we intend to do.