Alex Massie

Yes, Let’s Talk About Immigration

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Of all the great mysteries of modern British politics the notion that no-one is permitted to talk about immigration must surely be one of the most remarkable. After all, as this excellent, persuasive, post at the Enemies of Reason makes clear  there are plenty of people and plenty of newspapers that never shut up about immigration. And they tend to view it as a bad, even wicked, thing.

Indeed one could go further. The people from whom one rarely hears are those that, generally speaking, think that immigration is a good, not a pernicious, thing. Heck, consider the political parties: Labour talk about "getting tough" about immigration and "cracking down" upon it while the Tories want to put a "cap" on the number of foreigners permitted entry into the United Kingdom each year.

Now you may say that this is mere rhetoric unmatched by actions (in Labour's case) and, perhaps, unlikely to be matched by future actions (in the event of a Conservative government) and, yes, perhaps you might have a point. But my point also stands: the vast majority of immigration-related public discourse in this country shouts for limiting, and sometimes even reversing, immigration.

That being so and even though I consider the so-called threat posed by the BNP to be massively over-stated (not least because, actually and perhaps despite myself, I have a good deal of faith in the "people"), the wonder must surely be that it's only the decency of British voters that prevents the BNP from winning more support. After all, when the "main" parties endorse BNP-lite policies (in some respects) it's surely a surprise that more voters don't want to cut out the middle-man and get the "real deal" straight from source?

I'm perfectly aware that immigration can, and sometimes does, place extreme pressures on certain neighbourhoods, towns and public services. But what of it, at least in utilitarian terms? Immigration, and some of the discomfort caused by it, might properly be considered a source of pride, not despair. After all, it's a vote of confidence in your nation. People want to move here. That's not nothing. And we are, of course, a wealthy nation. We can probably, if we choose to, deal with the upheavals all this can cause.

The economic benefits of immigration can be - and are - a matter for debate. I'm more concerned - and I know many readers will disagree with me on this - with the moral dimension.

I happen to believe that the free movement of goods is an important thing. I also believe it is important that capital be able to cross boundaries. I am a free-trader and I abhor, morally speaking, protectionism. However tempting it may seem at times and in given circumstances, in the long-run I believe it's counter-productive.

Question: if you believe in free trade shouldn't you also believe in the free movement of labour? And if you don't, then aren't you saying that some forms of protectionism are actually OK? In which case, can you really call yourself a free-trader? Or is your view of freedom of movement somehwat limited?

So let me suggest something else: if you believe in liberty then don't you also need to believe in immigration? State-sponsored coercion is a terrible thing, but among the many terrible things about countries such as Cuba or Burma, is that their people are not actually properly free to leave. I think one could say the same about women in Saudi Arabia and here too it seems to me that one ought to offer them the prospect of a better life, if that's what they seek. These people have to move somewhere. Why not here?

Sure, you may say, but that's politically-inspired migration. We're talking about something else. Well, only maybe. There are plenty of things wrong with the EU, but the access to other labour markets enjoyed by citizens of the newly-admitted Eastern European states has been one of the greatest advances of liberty  - personal, economic and, yes, political too - that we've seen in europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall. This too is something to be celebrated, not bemoaned.

But what about the "host" countries? The economics of labour migration are open to endless interpretation. Study A says it has some depressing effect upon wages for the native-born; Study B says it has little impact at all. Consider it a wash or a no-score draw. I prefer, as I say, to think of it in moral terms and consider the increase in liberty afforded to those that had precious little previously.

Because, whatever you think about immigration, the greatest determining factors in the Lottery of Life are a) gender and b) the country in which you are born. Nothing any given individual has done in their own life "deserves" the privileges that come from being born in the UK or Canada or Sweden or Germany or the United States. Yet with those privileges surely comes an obligation to try and extend them to people born in less fortunate parts of the globe? Sometimes that means letting them live with us.

One need only consider the contributions made to this country by immigrants and, most importantly, by their children, to appreciate that immigration enriches the indigenous culture even as, yes, it also alters it. For that matter there's a good argument to be made that guest-worker programmes in the rich world would do much more for Africa than much, or indeed all, of the aid that we use as a well-intentioned means of salving our own consciences. Of course that such salving is needed reinforces the idea that our actual policies are, how to put it, imperfect?

As I say, mine is a minority opinion and I'm sure many commenters will point that out. I also know that my instinctive preferences will not become policy and that, in the exceedingly unlikely event they were to, there'd be trade-offs and problems with them too.

I doubt much of this will surprise long-time readers, but others have asked that I address the "issues" of race and immigration rather than just talk about the BNP. So here we are.

Yes, I'm an extremist because, instinctively, I don't really believe in borders. But that's because I'm an old-fashioned - ie, 19th century - style of liberal. Most of the time anyway. People are people and an accident of passport is not enough, in my view, to deny others the prospect of fulfillment and a better life.

Like I say, I don't expect this to be part of any election-winning manifesto and, yes, this is longer on theory than practice. Nonetheless, here you have it: proof that I'm an open borders trans-nationalist who believes in world government, Santa Claus, the supremacy of Hibernian over Heart of Midlothian, non-smoking, the banning of Wodehouse and cricket and the immediate embracement of Sharia Law, not just in Britain but across the planet*.

At the very least however could those people who decry immigration cease shouting quite so much wnen it is, in fact, their voices that are heard loudest and to them that all parties seek to pander in this whole sorry debate?

Standard Immigration Background Note: Yes, I live in rural Scotland. Yes, immigration is a less pressing issue here. Yes, in terms of skill-shortage, our cricket club could do with more immigrants from cricket-playing nations. No, this isn't the only place I've lived. Yes, I've lived in an immigrant-dominated neighbourhood. Yes, for that matter, I've lived in an apartment block in which approximately 33% of residents were immigrants. No, that wasn't in Britain. But, yes, I've also lived in a european city that's seen recent and large-scale immigration. No, I didn't think that was disastrous and yes I thought it a mark of that city and country's success, not failure.

*Note: If you actually think that then, apart from the open borders bit, I believe you should probably read this blog more carefully.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyimmigration