Immigrants have been pouring into our country in ever-increasing numbers. There is no debate about that, it’s simply a fact. There’s no doubt either, if you look at the facts rather than the pages of tabloid newspapers, that immigration overall is good for Britain’s economy, with immigrants buoying our state coffers, supporting our ageing population, and filling the menial jobs nobody else wants. Try working in a London restaurant and tell me we don’t need European workers.
The problem, however, is that Britain’s rapidly growing immigrant population doesn’t come without its problems, real or imagined. Regardless of whether the housing crisis or NHS underfunding should be the true object of people’s ire, it’s unmistakeable that pressure from high immigration adds to these problems. And concerns about a lack of integration, illegal immigration, clashing cultures, criminal migrant gangs and Islamic extremism are all very real problems. If you’re a self-employed tradesman, there’s a very real chance that immigration has already placed significant downward pressure on your wages, as competition for work grows.
Of course all immigrants shouldn’t be blamed for these problems; like people more generally, the vast majority are hard-working, decent and honest and they certainly haven’t come to Britain with the intention of harming or defrauding anyone. But somewhere along the way the immigration debate took a wrong-turn. The public became increasingly out of step with politicians. The more this happened, the more politicians tried to ignore the problem, tried to silence the angry voices with platitudes, or even worse, exploited these fears for short-term political gain. Time and time again the Tories promised to bring immigration down ‘to within the tens of thousands’. Not only was this a promise they knew they couldn’t keep, they weren’t really interested in trying. They made the problem worse by deliberately stoking hatred of immigrants by blaming them for benefit and health tourism to distract from the impact of their austerity policies.
And they weren’t alone. Labour promised vague and meaningless ‘controls on immigration’ at the last election, and apart from slapping the slogan on an ill-considered mug they had no intention of following this through with real action. In short, both parties legitimised the ‘immigration is a problem’ mantra in the hope of winning votes, while neither promised anything meaningful at all in actual policy. Frustration grew. The truth is, neither believed immigration was a problem and neither actually wanted to take action, and all the Gillian Duffy’s in the world weren’t going to change that. They were right that reducing immigration was economically illiterate, and that overwhelmingly the benefits of immigration far outweigh the negatives. But being pro-immigration wasn’t a vote-winner. So instead of trying to fix the negatives, while making a passionate case for immigration, they simply offered a few highly transparent platitudes, then avoided the subject wherever possible. Immigration was one of the nation’s greatest concerns at the last election, but it was barely mentioned in either campaigns. No wonder now the public are revolting.
The longer this political cynicism continued, and the longer the political establishment ignored people’s concerns, the more and more infuriated people became. In the beginning, the immigration debate could have been sensible, it could have been driven by facts, in public forums, by politicians and experts. But the more the problem was brushed under the carpet, ignored, or treated with the utmost contempt, the more misinformation was allowed to spread. Slowly but surely, a steady drip of news stories, some factual and some downright misleading, began to shift the popular psyche among people who didn’t know any better. The more annoyed people became by immigration, the more they bought newspapers that fed into this outrage for profit; foreigner-bashing became a big seller. Newspapers began churning out more and more stories about immigrants scrounging benefits, attacking women, eating swans, ruining communities with their customs and cultures, threatening our very way of life. It only took charismatic/repulsive Nigel Farage to come along and provide an outlet for people’s anger, and this debate moved into the mainstream. Now mainstream politicians, and the entire Vote Leave campaign, is actively peddling outrageous lies about immigration; the debate has spiralled totally out of control. That is why we now find ourselves teetering on the edge of making an idiotic national decision of truly gargantuan proportions.
Because the political establishment is comprised overwhelmingly of wealthy people, and those with concerns about immigration are typically from working class backgrounds, there was growing contempt from both sides for the other. Those with concerns about immigration were dismissed as racists, as bigoted idiots. Some were, of course. But others were old people who’d seen the areas in which they lived suddenly transformed in a matter of years to be virtually unrecognisable. Some were people who felt a genuine sense of injustice that, as waiting lists for council accommodation grew and grew, seemingly people who had only just set foot in Britain were being prioritised. Many who’d never even known an immigrant read terrifying stories in newspapers about migrants and, unsurprisingly, believed them.
It’s very easy for middle-class people to sneer at those with concerns about immigration, while we enjoy a life of relative privilege, totally unaffected by the enormous demographic changes going on around us. The wealthy live in leafy suburbs overwhelmingly populated by white people, sneering at poor people for complaining about immigration while working-class inner city areas experienced the most dramatic population shifts of any era in the history of Britain. There are two things that contribute more than anything else to an individual’s understanding of other races and cultures; international travel and education. These are things that wealthy people have unfettered access to, and they use them to their full advantage. For poor people, the options are far more limited.
Remain or Leave, this referendum must serve as a dire warning that the status quo cannot continue. Vaguely making ‘the positive case for immigration’ is no longer enough. Concrete action must be taken in recognition that some have been affected negatively by immigration, and others need to be persuaded through actions, not just words, that immigration is positive and beneficial. Finally, as Britain’s membership of the EU hangs in the balance, it seems politicians are finally cottoning on to this. Ed Balls has questioned whether the absolute free movement of people is entirely beneficial, or whether some minor controls might alleviate some of the problems caused by immigration without negatively affecting the benefits. An even better idea than this is Gordon Brown’s suggestion of an immigration fund to support communities feeling the pressure from mass migration. This could be used to improve public services, schools or build houses in the places where residents feel the most pressure. But it shouldn’t have taken being pushed to the brink of disaster for politicians to acknowledge this debate, and contribute more than platitudes.
We shouldn’t apologise for racism, and we certainly shouldn’t condone it. There are no easy solutions, and for some no response short of “closing the borders” will be enough, regardless of how idiotic this would be. But it’s time we look a little harder at where it comes from, and revisit how we choose to challenge it. Ultimately, the failure of politicians to confront this problem has been far more instrumental in allowing it to snowball than the people who have been swept up in it along the way. I hope to god that Britain votes remain on Thursday. But even if common sense triumphs over misinformation, there mustn’t be complacency. We know the result is going to be close, and the Leave camp are unlikely to let the result lie; they’ll be back trying to get a second referendum within a decade if this issue can’t be put to bed. To stop this, there needs to be a dramatic change in political leadership on immigration. Politicians need to start listening, and there needs to be some concrete action. Genuine time and effort must be dedicated to combating anti-migration sentiments in schools, in communities, in politics. It’s going to be an uncomfortable debate, but a polarised Britain needs to have a real, sensible conversation about immigration. A return to the hysteria of the last five years, while burying our heads in the sand, will only make the situation worse and worse.