Author: Ian Dunt
Anti-immigrant hysteria is now so deeply embedded in British politics that new parties adopt it before they’re even formed. On Wednesday, we got a few more details about United for Change, the dreadfully named centrist initiative funded by a group of philanthropists and entrepreneurs. Straight out of the gate, it decided to replicate Labour and the Tories’ spectacular failures on immigration policy.
“Broad pitch will be long term plans for public services,” the BBC’s Ross Hawkins reported, “limits for MPs signing up, tough message on immigration.”
Incredible. Even here, among those who rightly despair at where we are, the same mistakes are being made.
It was the “tough message on immigration” during the referendum campaign which caused Brexit and got us into the mess that required a new party in the first place. Both the official Vote Leave campaign and the unofficial Leave.EUeffort, which used messaging more akin to the “alt-right” culture warriors online, weaponised anti-immigrant sentiment. Sometimes they did so with a hint of respectability and sometimes, as in the case of the Turkey leaflets or the “Breaking Point” posters, they did so without it.
The message didn’t just help to win the campaign, it also defined the political class’s understanding of what happened. The near-universal consensus in late-2016, even among many supposed liberals, was that the anti-immigrant view had to be actualised in government.
Theresa May became the first de facto Ukip prime minister. The body of the Eurosceptic party shrivelled up, but its soul rose from the corpse and found a home in Downing Street. The reduction of immigration took precedence over any other policy consideration, including the economy.
Even at that stage, the harm of Brexitcould have been minimised. May just needed to stay in the single market and customs union. She would have significantly reduced the economic impact and prevented the border problem in Ireland. The Brexiters would be sailing breezily towards their goal by now and we would not be in this state of constant broiling chaos.
But this was considered impossible, because it would have involved retaining freedom of movement, a core rule of the single market. By now, the anti-immigrant consensus was so widespread that no one was prepared to propose this – not even the Liberal Democrats’ current leader Vince Cable, or many of the Labour figures who now campaign for single market membership, such as Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock.
The consequences of that cowardice are now clear. We have spent two years using the full bandwidth of government and the civil service in the name of a policy agenda which no one believes in or can explain. Britain’s reputation for stability and good sense has disintegrated. The economic wellbeing of its population is being held to ransom by a group of quasi-religious nationalist fantasists on the Tory backbenches. And the public is severed in half – between town and country, young and old – on an issue which before the referendum barely figured in people’s top 10 most important political considerations.
That’s what the “tough message on immigration” got us. And it wasn’t even a problem in the first place.
Britain has an ageing population. It needs an influx of people of working age to take jobs, pay taxes and pay for their care. Immigrants from the EU pay more to the Treasury in taxes than they take in benefits. They also bring pre-packaged educational capital with them, because they were trained in their home country. Figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast borrowing as a proportion of GDP reaching 99% even with a steady flow of migrants. Without them, it was forecast to hit 174%.
Countless studies have looked for proof that immigrants reduce domestic British wages and failed to find it. Most show a positive or neutral impact. Those which do find a negative effect – like the Stephen Nickell and Jumana Saleheen study which is regularly cited by Leavers – show a wage reduction which is “infinitesimally small”, in the words of its author, over eight years and for a limited number of workers.
This is because immigrants don’t just take jobs and benefits, as the rightwing tabloids pretend, they also stimulate demand and increase productivity in their sector, because they bring with them new ideas, techniques and market access.
This is not even to mention the vast cultural and social contribution immigrants make, the way in which they have made this a more colourful, musical, flavourful, dynamic and exciting country to live in. There are no percentages for this, for the feeling you get in major UK cities of an extraordinary experiment in global identity, with a British rudder. There is no spreadsheet which encapsulates the way in which that bustling variety helped forge a country which felt modern and new, while still being aware of its past.
We have now decided to sabotage all that. There is not a single argument to do so – no cultural argument, economic or moral argument. There is only the drab and depressing spectacle of a policy agenda formulated to placate the emotional needs of the most reactionary elements of society.
The Tory party has adopted Ukip’s agenda wholesale. Labour is so petrified of free movement that it has nothing to say in the Brexit debate at all, which is essentially like excusing yourself from British politics for a few years. The UK could use a new centrist party. Even if it found it impossible to win power, a couple of shock by-election victories could act as an anchor, scaring the other two parties and pulling them back towards more moderate ground. But that only works if it is prepared to shake up the status quo, not make the same mistakes all over again.
We can only hope the reports are wrong and those dreaming of a centrist initiative have more backbone. The only way out of this mess is to proudly make the case for immigration. The consequences of not doing so are all too clear: a country dedicating all its resources to carrying out a policy with impossible risks for no discernible purpose.