The problem is that attitudes are not a neat fit, aren’t fixed and don’t involve standing still and closing your eyes. There’s a whole industry devoted to ways in which they don’t stay static, or correspond with looking at reality, in the form of the British Social Attitudes Survey (calm down, Nationalists, there’s one for Scotland, too) conducted annually for the past 35 years.
One fixed British – which in this instance definitely includes Scottish – attitude, however, is a disapproval of queue-jumping. You can’t imagine De Quincy or Orwell putting in a good word for queue-jumping in the way that they were prepared to excuse murder. The naturalised British writer George Mikes (born Mikes Gyorgy in Hungary), in his classic How to be an Alien, went so far as to describe queuing as “the national passion”, surpassing even interest in the weather.
So Theresa May’s depiction of EU citizens in Britain as having “jumped the queue” is a highly provocative political statement. Or so you would think from the reactions. She might as well have said Lebensraum, judging by Nicola Sturgeon’s claim that “the more I think about it, the more offensive ‘jump the queue’ is… Really disgraceful”.
Leaving aside the dubious contention that the First Minister has ever engaged in anything that could be called thinking, let alone more thinking, this is an arresting statement. Or rather, overstatement. There are almost innumerable ways in which Mrs May’s phrase is ill-judged and inaccurate, but the one thing it’s not is offensive.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being offensive; defending the right to give offence is central to British political thought. But since the prevailing national attitude these days seems to be manufacturing ways in which to take offence, it is now taken as a knock-down argument.
Saying that EU nationals have “jumped the queue” isn’t offensive, though. It’s just silly. The point is that there was no queue; it was a right they had under the EU’s freedom of movement, just as UK citizens had the right to go and live and work in other EU countries. Insofar as there is any queue for immigration, it’s one entirely created by successive UK governments for the citizens of other countries – one of the chief offenders being Mrs May, during her long spell at the Home Office.
Her time there seems to have convinced her that a fixed British attitude is that immigration is a bad thing, and that the sole point of Brexit was to stop it. This accounts for her mishandling of the negotiations, in which she has ignored all the possible benefits to be gained from leaving, and indeed conceded them to the EU in exchange for halting free movement, which lots of us thought was one of the few unambiguously good things about EU membership.
Her statement yesterday on an “agreement in principle” with the EU followed just this pattern: she is “determined to get a good deal” for “the people of the UK”, and has herself decided what that is. That none of the people, be they Leave or Remain voters, shares her vision will not shake her determination to give it to them good and hard, whether they like it or not.
But there are no settled British attitudes to immigration; the work of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University shows that they change considerably over time, and are dependent on numerous factors, some of which – like the economy – don’t have much to do with immigrants themselves. Surprisingly few people, for example, object to immigration by those with professional qualifications.
In any case, the economic arguments against immigration are by far the weakest. All the evidence shows immigrants are net contributors – by a considerable margin – and that a far smaller percentage claim benefits than among those born in the UK. A decline in the birthrate and an ageing population make immigration more or less an economic necessity for future pension provision. Even the claim that immigration suppresses wages in low-paying jobs is an argument that it benefits the economy as a whole.
That successive governments failed to make these points was a consequence of their having failed to acknowledge the unease prompted by cultural relativism and globalisation. By airily dismissing such worries as racist, they actually allowed and encouraged anti-immigration sentiment, instead of making the easy case for its benefits.
Immigration was an issue in the Brexit vote but, as The Economist argued from its analysis of immigration levels, most UK citizens before the vote were relaxed about high levels of immigration; it was only high levels of change in short periods which tended to predict a strong Leave vote. Even then, sovereignty was consistently ranked in almost every poll as the number one factor (with about 50 per cent citing it as the most important), while immigration was cited by fewer than a third of Leave voters.
The attractive arguments for Brexit were not that it would halt free trade or the free movement of people; itself an aspect, and an essential one, of free trade. Quite the contrary. The point was to escape rules, not impose more. Mrs May, a Remain campaigner, never grasped this, and because her own instincts are for regulation and government control, has merrily signed up to EU-dictated terms which render leaving largely pointless.
In exchange, she has got (at best potentially, and a limited amount of) UK government control of immigration, the one thing that can be empirically shown to have been a boon. And, of course, there’s the reciprocal loss of freedom of movement for UK citizens who want to work in the EU, or retire to the Costa del Sol.
The point about a queue, which George Mikes understood but Theresa May never will, is that it is not artificially created by government or controlled by the authorities. It is spontaneous, agreed by common cultural standards, self-policing and driven entirely by popular demand. That should be the British attitude towards immigration, and it’s a mystery why its levels should involve government at all.