why immigration is a social problem

seminar on 'the political and cultural debates surrounding migrant workers in the uk',

university of oxford, 8 November 2007

Policy debates about immigration generally focus on two broad themes: the impact of immigration upon the economy, and its social and cultural impact. The arguments in favour of immigration are generally couched in economic terms (though, of course, there are, and always have been, economic arguments against mass migration). The social impact of immigration , on the other hand, has usually been seen as negative. Immigrants are seen as taking up valuable resources, making it more difficult to cohere communities and undermining a sense of national identity.

As a result, policy makers have seen their role as balancing the economic need for migrants against the social problems they create. The 'cross-departmental' government report on The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Immigration published last month, for instance, expresses broad support for immigration's positive effect on Britain's economy but fears about its negative impact on the country's social fabric. Why does immigration inevitably lead to fears about its social consequences? Largely because the presence of immigrants helps crystalise already existing social anxieties, particularly anxieties about national identity and social cohesion. To understand this better I want to take a brief look at the history of the debate about immigration and race relations in postwar Britain and to compare the debate about the first set of mass immigrants in Britain in the 1950s with the debate about the new wave of immigrants today.

The onset of mass immigration from India, Pakistan and the Caribbean in the late 1940s and the 1950s coincided with the dismantling of the British Empire, and the decline of Britain's global status. Immigration became the focus for the debate about these broader shifts. While policy makers welcomed the influx of new labour, there was at the same time considerable unease about the impact that such immigration may have on traditional concepts of Britishness. As a Colonial Office report of 1955 observed, 'a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken... the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached.' These fears translated themselves into a concern about the need to control immigration. Immigration controls were seen, not as a means of matching immigrants to jobs, but of preventing the presence of too many non-white immigrants from tarnishing Britain's racial identity.

The problem for policy makers, however, was that they could not explicitly say so. To have introduced such discriminatory legislation would have caused moral outage at home and abroad and undermined Britain's standing in the world. The experience of Nazism and revulsion against the Holocaust had created hostility to openly racist legislation. This was particularly so because inhabitants of Britain's colonies were British subjects and had the legal right to live and work in this country. The story of British immigration laws is the story of the legal attempt to prevent British subjects of the wrong skin colour from exercising their legal rights.

The dilemma that policy makers faced was well expressed in a secret 1950 Cabinet committee report:

Any solution depending on an apparent... colour test would be so invidious as to make it impossible for adoption... Nevertheless, the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would, as a general rule, be more or less confined to coloured persons.

In other words, immigration controls only made sense if they were discriminatory but they could not be openly seen to be so. The solution was found when Britain introduced its first immigration law in 1962. Formally, the law insisted that any immigrant to this country must first possess an employment voucher - so it appeared non-racial, simply matching people to jobs. But in private, policy makers were clear that the real aim was to stop non-white immigration. As Richard Crossman, a leading Labour Party thinking, wrote in his diaries, 'we have become illiberal... at a time of acute shortage of labour'. Or as the Conservative spokesman Reginald Maudling put it, 'The problem arises quite simply from the arrival in this country of many people of wholly alien cultures, habits and outlooks'. This tactic of presenting social concerns about immigration in the guise of a concern about numbers or job availiability has continued over the past 50 years.

The perception that immigrants were alien to the British way of life ensured that the relationship between immigrants and the British state was defined largely by hostility, racism and confrontation. Not only was immigration policy driven by the desire specifically to keep out non-whites, but the state also viewed non-white immigrants settled in Britain as undesirables. Immigrants were the problem, and that problem had to be policed. This led both to discrimination against blacks and Asians in every sphere of social life, including housing, education and employment, and to confrontations with the police, confrontations that came to an explosive climax in a series of major riots in Britain's inner cities in the late 1970s and the early 1980s. The authorities recognised that unless black and Asian communities were given a political stake in the system, their frustration could threaten the stability of British cities.

In response to the riots, the authorities, initially at the local level, and subsequently at the national level, pioneered a new strategy of inclusion. They organised consultations with minority communities, set up new political structures to allow dialogue between state institutions and minority organisations, recognised community leaders as genuine political representatives and channelled public funding through such leaders and organisations.

This process also helped redefine the idea of Britishness. It had been recognised for some time that the old notion of Britishness, rooted in ideas of race and Empire, could not be sustained. But nothing new had come to replace it. In the 1980s, this absence came to be take as something positive. Britain came to be seen not as a unitary nation, but as a multicultural society: a 'community of communities' as the Parekh report put it. Minorities, many came to argue, should not be forced to accept British values, or to adopt a British identity. Rather different peoples should have the right to express their identities, explore their own histories, formulate their own values, pursue their own lifestyles.

Cultural difference came to be seen not as a threat to national identity, as it had been in the 1950s, but as an affirmation of it. Britishness had become reformulated as the toleration, even celebration, of cultural differences. What was once seen as the inability of immigrants to integrate, now became viewed as the flourishing of a multicultural society, part of the patchwork of what it was to be British.

These developments, from the 1980s onwards, transformed the debate about immigration by transforming the relationship between the state and the non-white minorities. The racism that marked Britain when I was growing up now barely exists. This is not to say discrimination has disappeared. But racism is not what defines the relationship between the state and minorities as it had previously.

But the new Britain has created a new set of problems and anxieties. The transformation of Britain has taken place not so much because minorities have come to be treated as everyone else but more because, in a way, everyone else has come to be treated like minorities. In the postwar years immigrants were seen as different and therefore a threat to Britishness. Today difference has become the lingua franca of politics and, indeed, of Britishness itself.

Multiculturalism gave an institutional form to what we now call identity politics. Policy makers came to treat people less as British citizens than as members of particular racial, ethnic, cultural or faith groups, and to define policy largely in terms of the perceived needs and desires of those groups. And people came to see themselves in that way too - not as British citizens but as Muslims, or African Caribbeans, or Scottish.

Two consequences flowed from these developments. First, there has been increasing conflict between identity groups. Britain today is less defined by confrontation between the state and minority groups, than by conflict between those groups. Because Britain is seen as a community of communities, so each group seeks to maximise its interests at the expense of others, creating animosity.

Second, there is a greater disengagement between individuals and the political process. Because individuals are often treated not as citizens but as members of particular groups, so they feel less inclined to think of themselves as citizens or to see to political process as being of great value. This is particularly so because elected politicians have effectively abandoned their responsibility for engaging directly with Britain's communities. Instead they have subcontracted their responsibilities out to so-called community leaders who act as intermediaries. When the Prime Minister, for instance, want to find out what Muslims thinks about a particular issue, or wants to get a message to 'the Muslim comunity', he invites the Muslim Council of Britain to No 10 (or at least he did until the MCB fell out of political favour). It is an approach that suggests that of all the interests British Muslims may have - in health, education, etc - only their faith really matters. Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens, and attempting to draw them into the mainstream political process, politicians prefer to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith and who can be politically engaged only by other Muslims.

The creation of new tensions and conflicts, and the greater degree of political disengagement, has led to a new debate about social cohesion and national identity. These new debates have coincided with the arrival of a new wave of migrants, largely from Eastern Europe. Just as in the 1950s, the presence of the new immigrants has become a lightning rod for the wider concerns. So, rather than see the problems of political disengagement and social conflict as the result of policy decisions taken over the past two decades, they have come to be seen as the result of immigration creating too much diversity.

Unlike in the 1950s, immigrants to Britain today are generally of the same skin colour as indigenous Britons; and black and Asians Britons are, ironically, often as hostile to the newcommers as are white Britons. The fear today is not that the new immigrants will undermine a racial conception of Britishness, but that too much cultural diversity will undermine social cohesion and make it more difficult to create a common national identity. Hence the government has introduced Britishness tests to ensure that immigrants know what it is to be British and citizenship ceremonies make them feel part of the national story.

But perhaps the most striking difference between now and the 1950s, is that 50 years ago the fear was of immigrants becoming permanently attached to Britain. Ironically, many of the initial immigrants were single men who expected to return home after a short time working here. But once the 1962 Immigration Act came into force they had no choice but to settle here and bring their families over, because if they left they might never have been able to get back in again.

Today, on the other hand, migrants from the EU have, in principle at least, freedom of movement. Poles, for instance, can flit between Britain and Poland as they wish - the so-called Ryanair migrants. As a result a much lower proportion of the new immigrants are likely to settle. And that is what concerns today's critics of immigration: that Ryanair migrants will make Britain more fragmented, less integrated. In reality of course, they are not the cause of fragmentation, simply a symbol of the anxieties about social cohesion.

In the 1950s, immigration controls were viewed as a means of preserving a racialised form of British identity. Today they are seen as tools, not of preserving racial identity, but of managing cultural diversity and creating a more coherent society. But one thing that debates about immigration throughout the past half century have had in common is that they have not really been about immigration at all. There is an important debate to be had about immigration. Unfortunately it is the not the debate in which politicians, policy makers and the public have been engaged.