We need to talk about it

I would rather not talk about immigration. Like most liberals, I feel grubby even mentioning the subject. We have such a deep horror of those who do talk about it that we refuse to elevate their diatribes into a dialogue. We hope, as perhaps we are hoping now, that this is an ugly topic that raises its head from time to time and will go away if we ignore it.  

This time it will not go away. Brexit has pushed immigration near the top of the national agenda. The coming years will determine not only what sort of economy we have, but what sort of society. It already seems clear that it will not be possible to remain in the single market without continuing to accept free migration from other EU countries. That would be tantamount to not leaving the EU at all (in fact, it would be worse). Given the result of the referendum, it is hard to see how this would be politically acceptable in Britain. In which case, it will be impossible to remain in the single market.

So it now looks likely that our economic future will be conceded to the leavers. Which makes it doubly important to win the argument about our social future.

It is hard to know whether the abuse of racial minorities has increased since June, or merely the reporting of such incidents. However, enough people of widely differing backgrounds have been interviewed on TV, all saying the same thing, to make it evident that minorities believe they are persecuted in a way they were not before the referendum. That in itself is a source of shame.

The hard right will not stop shouting about immigrants in the years to come, especially as they feel that they have got the ‘liberal elite’ on the run. The liberals now need to engage in the debate and to fight back with calm, emphatic argument. And we must learn to discriminate between rampant xenophobia on the one hand and legitimate concerns on the other: a distinction we have not always been willing to draw.

‘Immigration’ is not a single subject, capable of being represented by a single word. ‘Immigrants’ are not a homogeneous group of people.

It was said that, of the 810 merchants who kissed the hand of George III, at least 250 were of foreign origin. Britain’s ascent to become the greatest trading nation in the world owed a great deal, at all times, to merchants from other countries who based themselves here, to the country’s enormous benefit. The same is true today. There are tens of thousands of people who contribute immeasurably to the country’s wealth and future prospects. They are bankers, financial traders, merchants, businessmen, research scientists, software engineers and much else. We cannot do without them at any time, let alone now. They are ‘immigrants’.

Then there are the tens of thousands of foreign students, here usually for a few years only. They are financially self-supporting. The fees they pay help to sustain a wide range of benefits and services to British-born students. When their courses are over, some will stay and give us the benefit of their skills. Most will not, but they will, we hope, take a positive experience of British culture and education to their own and other countries. These students are no burden on Britain. They offer a positive benefit to the country. They are also ‘immigrants’.

Then there are tens of thousands of doctors and nurses, without whom the NHS would not function. They are also ‘immigrants’. And so it goes on. For the most part, these groups are not resented by the people they live amongst, perhaps because they present no direct economic threat. Their presence, and the need for it, invalidates the notion that Britain can or should reduce immigration to ‘tens of thousands’, a promise that was absurd when the Government first made it, and which it has now incomprehensibly repeated.

However. There are many towns and cities, especially in northern England and parts of the Midlands, in south Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, where unemployment has been high for generations, where job prospects are poor, where social conditions are often abject, and where any amount of immigration represents competition for scarce resources.

The fact that immigration is not the root cause of these problems is by now irrelevant. It is perceived to be. It is not enough to call such people racists and ignore them. The ideal solution would be to remedy the underlying causes of social deprivation so that immigration can be seen for what it is: something that can benefit the whole community. This has failed to happen for decades. In a perfect world, we would now be pumping resources into deprived areas of the country and helping to regenerate them. Apart from the fact that little money appears to be available to do this, and perhaps even less once the full ramifications of Brexit become apparent, this is a project that would take decades to produce tangible results. As a result, we have no option now but to address the symptoms of immigration.

That must involve reducing, at least for the time being, the scale of it. This needs to be done selectively. It is misleading to talk of the total number, because the total number is not the problem. The numbers in deprived areas are the problem. And the biggest single way of reducing those numbers would be to end the free movement of people from other, poorer, EU countries. However squeamish liberals feel about such a policy, it seems indispensable if we are to win the bigger argument.

The bigger argument is what sort of society we will become, which needs to start with what sort of society we already are. We are now, at least in most of the southern part of England and in some metropolitan areas beyond it, a comfortably multi-racial country, with relatively well integrated communities from every part of the globe. (Relative, that is, not to an absolute ideal, but to other countries and to the scale of the challenges we have faced.)

Of equal importance, the notion that we were once, until the post-war era, a monolithically Anglo-Saxon or Celtic people has been demolished by historical and DNA evidence. Apart from the merchants who kissed the hand of George III, many of the sailors who crewed Nelson’s navy were Afro-Caribbeans and many of the refugees from European persecution – Jews and Huguenots prominent amongst them – have graced our country for centuries. About 15 years ago, a BBC documentary took a number of self-proclaimed British nationalists, analysed their DNA and found that all except one had significant ancestry in Africa, Asia or the Middle East. (Sadly, the exception was Norman Tebbit.) We have been living in a multi-racial country since time immemorial.

Now, people thousands of miles from Europe have decided that Europe is the place they want to be and have found the means of getting here. From that point of view, it matters little whether they are refugees from a war or economic migrants. What they all want is a better life, and how can we complain about that, when it is what we want too?

This problem will not go away, and it is likely to intensify. Neither Britain nor any European country can admit everyone who might want to come, but that does not mean that we have to pull up the drawbridge and say that’s it, no more thank you, please go away. No man is an island and no country, now, is an island, even when it is. The future of the world, however much xenophobes may hate it, is unalterably linked to a greater freedom of movement, and thus a decline in the importance of national boundaries.

It is surely better, in principle, to embrace this fact than to deny it and have it forced upon us by reality. This is the argument that liberals need to win. But we will not win it unless we engage with the immigration debate, unless we are prepared to disaggregate the many component parts of ‘immigration’, and unless we are prepared to understand and accept the legitimate fears of people in those parts of the country where we choose not to live.