Migration and identity
The migration debate in the UK is a political and philosophical mess of cherry-picked, opportunistic sound-bites, says former British Ambassador Charles Crawford
British workers left unprotected says Labour as immigration row deepens (Guardian, 1 January)
One in ten young British ‘have nothing to live for’ (Guardian, 2 January)
Migration raises an existential issue that gets lost in the legal labyrinths and headline-grabbing of specific cases and categories. The issue is as simple as it is rarely discussed. Are states and their populations entitled to maintain their identity? If so, how?
Many countries (say the Gulf states) make the deal for migrants crystal clear: You can come here to work and get quite rich, but you have only those modest rights we may give you. You won’t get our citizenship, however long you stay here, and even if you marry a local person. By the way, our laws are tough (morals, drugs); one false move and you’re out. Accept?
No-one seriously argues that these tight migration regimes are a priori unreasonable. On the contrary, they are commendably clear. Were the tiny indigenous Gulf states’ populations to give foreigners full rights and citizenship, their identity would be swept away.
These small countries stay in business as states, controlling their own culture by eschewing human rights universality. They sign up to most UN and other documents. But they apply human rights precepts tightly, according to their own standards.
Over in Asia, Japan is a far bigger country with its own unique culture and worldview. Japan’s energetic work with robots is part of policy to manage its ageing population and declining demographic base without importing large numbers of foreigners whose presence will undermine Japan’s highly specific cultural integrity.
Is Japan’s determination to uphold its ‘Japaneseness’ unjust or illegitimate? Surely not.
By contrast, the migration debate in the United Kingdom is a political and philosophical mess of cherry-picked opportunistic sound-bites. Leftists who otherwise hate market forces oppose restrictions on migration.
They vaunt the contribution of ‘vibrant’ hard-working immigrants to British culture, while denouncing as Tory brutality the overcrowded housing and growing British youth unemployment that mass cheap-labour migration encourages.
Conservatives fret about the infiltration of foreign extremist practices and foreigners committing benefit fraud, but smirk that the UK economy will be bigger than Germany’s in a couple of decades’ time thanks to our better immigration-driven demographics.
The latest noises from Westminster on EU migration are especially outlandish. Labour has disgraced itself by calling a ‘serious mistake’ Tony Blair’s 2004 opening of the UK labour market to all new EU member states.
David Cameron has lunged in, his hollow populism insulting some of the UK’s closest EU partners such as Poland. Is it wise to waste political capital on pressing for some footling changes to child benefit payments for EU citizens working in the UK?
These pronouncements poison the atmosphere to no good purpose. Neither Right nor Left has any meaningful plan for controlling migration by people from EU countries: anything they might suggest cuts across long-established policies and is likely to crash in the courts.
Ed Miliband’s latest noises aimed at stopping foreign agency workers being paid below the minimum wage suspend reality: guaranteeing low-paid EU workers a bit more money will make them less likely to come here and/or help British workers compete.
Meanwhile, Nigel Farage too falls flat on his face in trying to claim the moral high ground of the UK migration policy anthill, somehow welcoming Syrian refugees while denouncing EU migration processes.
EU migration boils down to a deal people can understand. In return for accepting Poles and Romanians arriving here, Brits get the right to live in France, Spain or Poland with access to health/welfare services there. Poles, Czechs and Romanians are part of a shared European cultural and political space.
Maybe they are more likely than (say) Syrians or Pakistanis to ‘fit in’ without too many problems? They seem unlikely to bring with them female genital mutilation and ritual child sacrifice, or street mobs ranting against alcohol shops, or the public beheading of a British soldier because of deranged Catholicism.
Can we have that discussion without Nazgûl shrieks denouncing heteronormative colonialism and racism? No.
The United Kingdom’s very success now makes managing immigration hugely problematic. We pride ourselves on our traditional openness to world trade and our human rights record. We have the Commonwealth! And the nearest thing to a world language – it’s uniquely easy for a foreigner with a smattering of English to find compatriots with a base here and to communicate to get simple things done.
Meanwhile our economy is strong. Our official processes tend to be light by most international standards. People are treated fairly. All immigrants to the UK get free expensive stuff sooner or later: access to public health, welfare benefits and education services.
Human rights lawyers launch lawsuits for huge compensation for even the most undeserving foreign plaintiffs at any whiff of ‘discrimination’, while battling to stretch the concept of political asylum to include anyone on Earth who claims a gender-based fear of local harassment.
They call in aid the EU and other European legal orders that now have ultimate authority to pronounce over anything our country does to regulate its own affairs.
Then there are the state-subsidised Leftist academics and media chatterati gnawing away against any idea that British identity needs to be cherished and protected. Scarcely an hour goes by without some part of the BBC or the UK education system ‘deconstructing’ the values that have allowed our country to flourish down the centuries.
This non-stop sneering works. We agonise over Englishness and Scottishness and Britishness. We titter at our footling citizenship tests, bending over backwards not to offend anyone.
In this stupendous omniconfusion, our political classes have lost control of the immigration agenda. They cannot identify (and dare not even discuss) a coherent practical tough-minded immigration policy that allows in as non-EU migrants people with specific skills from specific parts of the world and only them.
There is no overall ‘deal’ on immigration that can be put to voters. So all we get are silly noises. Meanwhile each month thousands more EU and non-EU migrants arrive, to live and work who knows where as young British people stare aghast at their waning life prospects.
We all lament the visible decline and fall of good old-fashioned British common sense. Perhaps that is a truly profound insight. What if – thanks in part to mass immigration – the people living in the UK have decreasingly less in common?
Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. His website is www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets at @charlescrawford
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