This essay was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a shorter piece on the concept of radicalisation, in the wake of the conviction of Darren Osborne who drove his van into a crowd of Muslim worshippers.) It was published in the Observer, 4 February, under the headline ‘That working class lives are more fraught is not down to immigration’.
Last month, the Commons home affairs select committee published a report entitled Immigration Policy: Basis for Building Consensus. Hostility to immigration, it suggests, derives from those who have ‘significant concerns about the impact of migration on public services’ and who worry that immigrants are coming not ‘to contribute’ but to ‘play the system’. The government, it concludes, must be ‘more proactive in challenging myths and inaccuracies’ and ‘publish more factual information about the costs and benefits of immigration’.
Critics of the report, such as Policy Exchange’s David Goodhart, and Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, argue that opposition to immigration is not economic at root, but ‘largely cultural and psychological’. Rather than ‘appealing to voter economic interest’, it would be better to frame immigration ‘as something which their ethnic group will gradually absorb through intermarriage and assimilation leaving the country relatively unchanged’.
There is a pinch of truth on both sides in this debate, but also a large dollop of misapprehension. People do worry about the material deterioration of their lives, as everything from the anger at austerity policies to the panics about ‘health tourists‘ reveals. But it is not just economic deterioration that concerns people. It is the erosion, too, of the more intangible aspects of their lives – their place in society, their sense of community, their desire for dignity.
Economic, social and political developments have, in recent years, coalesced to make working-class lives far more precarious – the imposition of austerity, the rise of the gig economy, the savaging of public services, at the same time as the growing atomisation of society, the erosion of the power of labour movement organisations and the shift of the Labour party away from its traditional constituencies.
Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. ‘Social and economic change’, Goodhart himself acknowledged in his 2013 book The British Dream, ’would have swept away the old working-class ways even if there had been zero immigration.’ Immigration has, however, come to be the principal lens through which many perceive these changes. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems.
At the same time, the language of culture has become increasingly important as the means to make sense of society and social relations. Many people, as a result, have come to see their marginalisation as a cultural loss. Immigration, seen as a key reason for the cultural transformation of the nation, has come bear responsibility for that loss.
Immigration has clearly brought major changes, in the physical character of British cities, in the rhythm of social life and in the sense of what it is to be British. But it is not alone in driving social changes, nor is it even the most important driver of social change. Feminism, consumerism, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the destruction of manufacturing industries, the decline of traditional institutions such as the church – all these and many more have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But, thanks largely to the way that immigration has been framed from the beginning as a problem, even a threat, it is immigrants who have primarily become symbolic of change and of change for the worse.
Goodhart and Kaufmann are right that ‘publishing more factual information about the costs and benefits of immigration’ will in itself sway few minds. They are wrong, however, to imagine that reducing immigration numbers so as to persuade white workers that ‘their ethnic group will gradually absorb’ newcomers ‘leaving the country relatively unchanged’ will assuage worries. The problem is not that white workers are desperate to protect their ethnic identity. It is, rather, that in the absence of political mechanisms and social movements that can challenge their wider marginalisation, such identity is all that many have to lean upon.
However low one caps immigration, it will not affect austerity policy, or the atomisation of society, or the crisis in the NHS, or the neutering of trade unions. The immigration debate cannot be won simply by debating immigration, whether from an economic or a cultural viewpoint. Anxieties about immigration are an expression of a wider sense of political voicelessness, abandonment and disengagement. Until those problems are tackled, the anxieties will remain.