Such is the degraded nature of our national discourse on the topic of immigration that I feel obliged to start this piece with a statement, or -in modern parlance- a trigger warning.
I am a free-marketeer. I believe that capitalism, while far from perfect, provides the greatest good for the greatest number. I believe this because all of the available evidence leads me to that conclusion. Further, that belief in the free market comes with a belief in the free movement of people, which means that I am in favour of immigration, including economic migration.
Questions relating to how, when, why and in what numbers people move from one country to another ought to be considered important enough for reasoned discussion, but it has been clear for some time that ‘polite’ society has considered such questions to be out of bounds. Mainstream political parties won’t talk about it and the default liberal-left position has been: if you question immigration policy, you’re a racist. No wonder then, that rather than try to talk honestly and rationally on the subject, many folk opt to deploy the proverbial ten-foot bargepole to help them steer well clear of it. When you consider the public reaction to the refugee crisis, it’s little wonder that some choose to keep their own counsel. From the haughty tenor of some of the posts on the various social networks, you’d think that anyone not waving a ‘refugees welcome’ banner while organising a street party for the new arrivals was deserving of the kind of opprobrium normally reserved for members of the SS who have been discovered living in exile in South America. At the very least, many people appear to believe that a failure to subscribe to the ‘open our doors and let everyone in’ line is somehow morally dubious. I was intrigued by the number of people posting online statements about their willingness to take refugees into their own homes. I’m not in a position to say whether these statements were genuine, or merely tiresome examples of virtue signalling; I don’t suppose we’ll know for sure until we check back in a couple of months to see how they are all getting on with their Syrian lodgers.
During our national debate (I use that word in the loosest possible sense), we continue to use the emotive term ‘refugee’ when, under European law, someone cannot be classed as a refugee if they have crossed several ‘safe’ borders after having fled their own country. Many of the folk we are being urged to accept with open arms can, by no meaningful legal definition, be described as ‘refugees’. Accordingly, one must assume that they are economic migrants. I’ve already stated that I am in favour of economic migration and believe that it has enriched our country, but would add this caveat: nation states should have the right to make informed and rational decisions about how they manage their numbers. And, whether we like it or not, the numbers are important.
A few weeks ago, when people started circulating an idiotic meme about Britain’s ‘shame’ in only accepting 216 refugees (which anyone could have debunked after about twenty seconds of research), they inadvertently touched upon that key question. If you are willing to state that 216 was the ‘wrong’ amount of refugees to accept, you have implicitly acknowledged that there must be a ‘right’ number of refugees to accept. Let’s discount for the moment the fact that some folk think we should have an absolute ‘open doors’ policy, in the same way we’d discount the fact that some folk believe the earth to be flat. I don’t know if the ‘right’ number of refugees is 15,000, 150,000 or 1.5million. I would expect the people we elected to govern the country to have a view based on their knowledge of the likely impact on services, infrastructure, housing, social cohesion and so on. We have to trust them to make that decision because -much as it may surprise some folk to learn- personal conscience doesn’t trump reality. Making a grand pronouncement about our moral obligations might make some people feel good about themselves, but they shouldn’t expect other human beings with other thought processes and experiences, other opinions and observations, to go along with them.
Just as it’s idiotic to believe that all refugees are potential terrorists, it’s also idiotic to believe that there won’t be terrorists (or terrorist sympathisers) among the hundreds of thousands of folk currently entering Europe. We know there will be, because the jihadists have not only told us, they have demonstrated that they have agents and sympathisers operating in major European cities. These facts may be awkward and inconvenient for some folk to accept, but that’s the thing about facts: they don’t need you or me to feel awkward or inconvenienced about accepting them. They just are.
As always, our interpretation of events may depend on where we get our news from, but five minutes on the google machine should make it obvious that this is a much more difficult and complicated topic than some folk believe. For every ‘feelgood’ news item featuring smiling locals welcoming trainloads of refugees with open arms, there are myriad alternative stories about a less welcoming side. These stories, among other things, reveal a growing unease among local populations about the sudden influx of huge numbers of folk (the vast majority of them young single men) from North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We might not like to hear about hostility towards these migrants, but it is happening and there are reasons why it is happening.
I work in an educational setting on the outskirts of an average British city. Many of the students I work with come from areas which might be described as disadvantaged. Last week, I had a discussion about the refugee crisis with a group of 12 young people. What struck me was the sheer unanimity on this topic among the group; every one of them expressed views which, if aired on twitter, would probably have PC Plod at the door ready to press ‘hate crime’ charges. I’m expressing it politely when I say that these youngsters did not go along with the view that their country should welcome refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants. And I’m willing to bet that, for each of those kids, there will be a set of parents or carers with the same outlook. I do not believe that this is down to wickedness; these are simply people whose perceptions of this complicated topic are viewed through the filter of their experiences within their own communities. No doubt some of you reading this will already have concluded that such folk will have been brainwashed by the ‘right wing’ press, but that, I think, is an intellectually lazy position, one which wilfully ignores the experiences of those who believe that they have most to lose from immigration; that is, the people against whom many migrants will be competing for low-paid jobs and cheap housing.
I’m fine with immigration, but I’m middle class, middle-aged and comfortably off. I’m not unemployed and I’m not on the social housing waiting list. If I was and I lived in a poor community in which social and cultural tensions already existed, I probably wouldn’t be as keen on it as the average college professor, TV journalist or MP. And I’d probably be even less keen if I lived in a place like Rotherham, where the values of the governing class are so grotesquely skewed that they can suppress information about the systematic brutalisation and rape of 2,000 girls in the name of ‘community cohesion’, but can ban a middle-aged couple from fostering children because they supported a political party that said that it would limit immigration. Not a party that said it would introduce concentration camps or outlaw any particular religion; a party that said it would limit immigration. I can’t explain why those in power acted the way they did without using words like arrogance, stupidity and cognitive dissonance. If you can think of anything more damaging to the notion of community cohesion than a willingness on the part of the authorities to interpret heinous criminal activity through the prism of ethno-religious sensitivity, please let me know; my mind can’t possibly be any more boggled than it already was by those disgraceful events. Rotherham provided the perfect illustration of a political climate in which legitimate concerns are stifled and declared off-topic, a climate in which the Untermensch are excluded from any discussion because they’re deemed to be stupid, racist and volatile. Little wonder then, that many folk, rather than talk about the issues, will reach for that bargepole.
How did we get to this point? Well, here’s a clue:
Andrew Neather, a speech writer and adviser to Tony Blair in the early 2000s, was quoted as saying that Labour’s relaxation of immigration controls were designed to "open up the UK to mass migration", although ministers were reluctant to discuss this move publicly, fearing that it would alienate its "core working class vote". In a phrase which has rightly become notorious, Mr Weather said that Labour ministers wished to change the country and "rub the Right's nose in diversity".
Who was consulted about this plan? Did it ever appear in any Labour manifesto? And whose noses were actually being rubbed in it? If those ministers were really convinced that their policies were right, shouldn’t they have talked openly about them instead of operating by stealth?
When the Amsterdam treaty of 1999 formally incorporated the Schengen agreement into European law, commentators who pointed out the obvious (i.e. that opening Europe’s doors to potentially millions of poor Africans and Eastern Europeans could have catastrophic consequences) were routinely dismissed; they usually wrote for the ‘wrong’ newspapers and had the ‘wrong’ political views. And bit by bit, we got used to the idea of having to creep gingerly across eggshells, because polite society had declared omertà on the topic of immigration, hoping that it would go away.
But sooner or later, reality always puts its marker down. It doesn’t matter what polite society or mainstream political parties think, because if enough people think immigration is the big issue of the day, immigration will become the big issue of the day. And, when mainstream head-in-the-sand parties decide to keep their heads in the sand, the electorate invariably looks for alternatives.
I sometimes wonder if it occurs to folk who use 'shaming' tactics that they are at least partly responsible for the increasing support enjoyed by so-called extremist parties. Yes, if you have ever dismissed someone as a narrow-minded bigot without listening to their concerns about immigration, I’m afraid you are culpable. It’s true that we have no shortage of narrow-minded bigots, but extremist parties didn’t invent racism; they have grown -and will continue to grow- in response to the mainstream’s unwillingness to listen to views deemed to be morally or intellectually beyond the pale. By now, it should be obvious to everyone that closing debate down by shouting ‘racist’ doesn’t solve anything; in fact, it does quite the opposite, as Europe’s political leaders are discovering. Look up what is happening in Sweden if you want a glimpse of the future.
If we were able to have an honest and rational discussion now, I suspect that a majority of the British population would go along with the following two propositions:
It would be wrong to refuse to accept any refugees.
It would be wrong to have an absolute ‘open doors’ policy towards refugees.
Somewhere in between those two extremes is a position that the majority of us will support, because most people -on some level- appreciate that Society is a compact between those who are living now, those who shaped the world in which we live and those who will follow us. Our liberal culture (and its attendant freedoms) was not won in a lottery; it was fought for over hundreds of years, paid for by the lives of millions. It has survived by creating wealth and prosperity, adapting to change, welcoming and assimilating incomers and entrenching a set of core values within a complex system of cultural, societal and political mores. No single generation, no ephemeral governing group, no cabal of keyboard warriors is empowered to change that. To put it simply: we do not have the right to give the house keys to anyone who fancies turning up. And if we put that to a vote, most people would go along with it. Because, again, most folk know (if few are prepared to say) that while we are obliged to act morally and to help refugees as much as we reasonably can, we do not owe millions of folk from other continents our standard of living.
If you believe that we do, you should act according to your conscience. You should sell your house and car and donate the proceeds to an appropriate charity. You should take refugees into your home and share your life with them, or go and work for voluntary services overseas. What you shouldn’t do is demand that other people (and future generations) pay for policies that you think are morally upstanding. You are entitled to hold those views, but you have no right to hold other folk to those standards.
It is clear that our continued use of that intellectual bargepole has not had the desired effect. All it has done is build up resentment and open the door to folk who won’t necessarily have entirely benevolent intentions.
There is, however, still time to adopt a mature and rational approach to the topic.
We should be discussing and debating the issues of culture, demographics, assimilation, impacts on education, housing, health services and social cohesion. Because we live in a civilised country, I believe that the economic, social, cultural and moral case for controlled immigration can be made and won.
But I suspect that some of us aren’t yet ready to have that grown-up discussion.
When the subject comes up, too many shrill voices will still cry ‘racist’ and, fearful of being called the only thing that is worse than being called a paedophile, folk will -publicly at least- reach once again for that bargepole.
And something that is already quite ugly could get a whole lot uglier.