Sunday, 24 November 2013

Britain's sudden and bizarre resentment of migration

All three of Britain's major political parties are competing to sound tough on migrants. I can't really condemn them for that, however, since they seem to be reluctantly acceding to the popular demand reflected in the opinion polls and the rise of 'nativist' political parties like UKIP. The successful diffusion of anti-racist social norms in recent decades has constrained the most natural expressions of anti-migrant prejudices. But the bizarre arguments now being trotted out about the harm foreigners do to British prosperity, rights, and culture remain an expression of xenophobia rather than reason.

One thing that should be kept in mind throughout is the distinction between immigrants and expatriates. Immigrants are people who come to Britain to become British, and are usually doing so on the basis of claims to family unification. Expatriates are migrants who visit Britain for some particular purpose, like work or university studies, the majority on the basis of the EU's freedom of movement laws. Expatriates, unlike immigrants, do not set out to become British, though they may change their minds while they are here. Many of the complaints about migration conflate the distinctive features of these two groups. For example, expatriates don't want to become British, so complaining about their failure to fully assimilate and learn English 'properly' are as misplaced as complaints about British retirees in the south of France failing to become properly French.

The Prosperity Argument

This is the most 'objective' of the critiques of large scale (im)migration since it supposedly concerns things that can be counted - jobs, GDP per capita, and so forth. Various specific economistic claims are advanced about the negative impact of large numbers of newcomers on our prosperity, but the central one is that expatriate migrants take jobs from British people, and thus cause unemployment and poverty.

It is true that there is substantial unemployment in many parts of Britain, especially among the young, and that hundreds of thousands of migrants have found jobs here. Nevertheless the claim that large-scale migration causes large-scale unemployment misunderstands basic economic theory. It depends on the well-known lump of labour fallacy that was previously used to argue against allowing women to work. There is not a fixed number of jobs to be rationed out between different people (even if it might look like that from the ground-level). Jobs are created in response to business conditions (demand) and in response to the quality/price of labour relative to other options (outsourcing, automation, over-time, etc). For it to be true that foreigners have taken jobs from British people, it must be established that employed foreigners and unemployed natives are substitutable in terms of quality. Yet this is clearly not the case. 

Britain's unemployment problems are made in Britain and relate to socio-economic inequality second only to America’s in the industrialised world [previously]. A great many native Brits are basically unemployable in a modern economy, lacking the most basic educational achievements, motivation, and interpersonal skills. (I'll come back to this underclass below.) Political disinterest in the lives of those at the bottom of British society has permitted the intergenerational transmission of poverty and hopelessness on a scale that the education system alone is incompetent to solve. (Indeed, a cynic might say that its main achievement is to give Britain's class system a veneer of meritocratic fairness and thus occlude the politicisation of inequality.) These natives are not competing for jobs with foreigners or even other Brits – no one wants them.

It is a mistake to see foreigners as stealing jobs that would not have existed if they hadn't come. It is ridiculous to blame foreigners for our own political and social failure to end poverty (especially since we don't even let expatriates vote!). If foreigners without an understanding of our work culture or English fluency are nonetheless considered more valuable employees than many native born Brits, that surely says more about our indigenous failures than their vicious foreign cunning and opportunism.

The Fairness Argument

The central idea here is that foreigners are somehow cheating the system. Specifically, they are cheating the social welfare system by making claims without having paid their fair share of contributions. Of course, this is manifestly in contradiction with the economic complaint that they are stealing our jobs. And the actual statistics, which at least for expatriate migrants show that they are net contributors to both the tax system and the national economy. (Economic migrants tend to be in their prime working years, paying lots of taxes and hardly drawing on the most expensive parts of the welfare system, healthcare and pensions.)

So there is a bit of a puzzle here about what this fairness argument is really about. My reading is that it is actually a complaint about the moral status of foreigners rather than a demand for equal treatment between migrants and natives. Fairness, after all, concerns giving people what they are due, and what people are due is open to different interpretations.

It seems that the very idea that foreigners have the same rights as natives - i.e. equality of status under the law - is offensive to many people. How can someone who speaks English with a foreign accent be allowed to apply for the job you want, swamp your school with their alien children, or be ahead of you in the queue to see your doctor? (The question of the central government's responsibility to meet the public service needs of all its legal residents somehow never arises.)

Thus, what I think the popularity of the fairness argument reveals is that many British people hold a status-based rather than a legalistic view of rights (also seen in their distaste for the idea that prisoners have a right to vote - previously). In this view rights are not categorical moral claims on the model of laws. Rather, the question of whether and to what extent people deserve to possess a right depends on a moralistic assessment of their overall worthiness, which includes their tribal membership. Full moral status only accrues to native members of the community in good standing. This goes directly counter to the legalistic conception, popular in moral and political philosophy and central to liberalism, that fairness consists in making 'depersonalised' decisions that rule only on the criteria specified by the law or rule, and abstract away from 'irrelevant' characteristics such as one's place of birth. Incidentally, making rights into privileges also has invidious consequences for many natives lower down the moralised hierarchy of 'good standing', such as the unemployed, single mothers, mentally ill, or anyone who has been imprisoned.

The Culture Argument

Apparently Britain is a single culture and foreigners undermine that by staying foreign rather than assimilating properly. The influx of foreignness undermines the fragile British ethnic identity and our sense of political solidarity, presumably by swamping us with their divisively alien food, little shops, moral norms and religious headgear. But ethnic identities and political cohesion are a product of the dynamics of the whole society, including its economics, demographics, politics, and exposure to ideas like Third Wave Feminism and New Atheism. Foreigners are only one source of change - stopping them from coming wouldn't protect us. British culture and moral norms have in fact changed immensely since foreigners began arriving in great numbers, often very much for the better - the decline of homophobia, sexism, class deference, beatings by school masters, and boiled cabbage spring to mind. But rather few of these can be directly attributed to foreigners imposing their alien values upon us! Likewise, the institutions built by British solidarity, such as the NHS, are rather more at risk from neoliberal ideology and the Conservative party than from Polish plumbers or Latvian construction workers.

The more one ponders the 'cultural' critique of immigration or expatriate migration, the weirder it seems. The newcomers are blamed for things that hardly seem in their control, like being poor; or hardly seem reasonable, like being of an exotic religion (i.e. Islam). For example, the left wing anti-immigration polemicist David Goodhart notes from the 2011 census that, "in 4 per cent of British households there is no one who speaks English as their first language". This is presented as definitive proof of the failure of integration, but just what is so new or problematic in such statistics? The United Kingdom is, after all, a multinational multilingual country (at least that's the impression my passport gives me, in Welsh, Gaelic and English). And if it's OK for the people of Wales to educate their children in Welsh as a first language, one can hardly complain that people who come to Britain from elsewhere speak English as a 2nd language.

But even though it's legitimate to be a British resident or citizen without being English, how much do immigrants and their descendants (expatriates are different) really retain their foreignness? The general success of their integration into British life, culture, values, labour markets, and so on (especially compared to other European countries) is overlooked so systematically that one feels a great deal of effort must be involved. The multitude of different experiences of migration to Britain includes a great many cases of successful intercommunity relations and economic and civic flourishing. But it is only the handful of negative cases that are brought up, like the violence afflicted British-Somali community or the self-imposed isolation of the British-Pakistani community of Bradford.

It doesn't seem particularly sensible or just to condemn immigration as a whole, let alone expatriate migration too, because of a few unfortunate examples of self-segregated communities. Especially when these are hardly unique to migrants - the UK still hasn't managed to desegregate the tribalist state education system in Northern Ireland. In statistical rather than anecdotal fact, many of the most socio-economically deprived and racially segregated communities in Britain are white native ones. There are plenty of real threats to our solidarity as a political community, but foreignness isn't really one of them.

Why now?

My point is not that migration causes no problems for native society or newcomers, nor that it never imposes losses on natives (increased prices for scarce goods like housing; oversubscribed GP practices; favourite pubs converted into Polish bars showing Polish football; and so on). But, aside from the upsets to one's sense of identity, which seem inevitable in a continuously changing society anyway, these are the kind of thing that deserve the attention of local and national government civil servants tweaking public spending formulas, easing the constraints on new home-building, and so forth. They do not deserve public hysteria.

Recent years have seen a populist rout of the mainstream political parties from left to right on the issue of (im)migration, with a surprising number of people identifying it as the biggest problem Britain faces, or else second, after the economy. The British - or perhaps more especially the English - have always been suspicious if not hostile to foreigners, and foreignness in general. (Perhaps that has something to do with the sense of cultural superiority we came up with to justify the empire, and the cognitive dissonance that followed its fall.). But the political establishment had more or less kept a lid on that intolerance for 40 years (the turning point was perhaps 1968 when Ted Heath fired Enoch Powell for his popular but grotesque 'Rivers of Blood' speech), and had come to a general consensus on the economic argument for immigration. So the question is, why have the British stopped moaning about foreigners and started demanding action? Three reasons suggest themselves: perception, austerity, and the demographics of inequality.

First, perception. Yes, a relatively large number of expatriate migrants have visited (and then mostly left) Britain as a result of EU rights to freedom of movement being extended to poorer member states to the east. Perhaps more significant to the perception of an 'invasion' is that they did not only go to London, a city relatively used to foreigners and foreignness, and that over the same period, non-white British people have been leaving the cities their parents and grandparents first came to. The overall result has been to make the rest of Britain look more like London - hardly an obvious disaster. Although Britain has had large-scale immigration (and emigration - e.g. 750,000 Britis living in Spain) for some time, it is only now that many parts of the country have realised that, and many people seem rather surprised by the fact of British cosmopolitanism. It's like the 1960s all over again.

Second, the economic crisis and the politics of austerity seem to have evoked a tribalist moral retrenchment. Suddenly there is a dramatic impression of scarcity and vulnerability across much of society, with respect to jobs, affordable housing, good school places, social services, and so on. The allocation of scarce goods is now perceived as a zero-sum game: whoever manages to get them thereby deprives others of the chance. The extension of equal status to compete for these goods to people from outside our tribe - even to those who have made a commitment to becoming British - has therefore come to seem an act of generosity that is no longer affordable. Indeed such liberality is to be condemned because it privileges abstract universal ideals over the moral priority of true members of our tribal community. Those with only a tenuous claim to the privileges of citizenship in the first place, because of their low ranking in Britain's moralised socio-economic hierarchy, are especially worried. As the bedroom tax showed, even what little they have can always be taken away from them in the name of austerity.

Third, the political demographics of inequality. Changes to the economy over the last 40 years, associated with neoliberal government policies and globalisation, have led to the economic, social, and political disenfranchisement of a large part of the white working class. The effect is most keenly felt by men, who have lost their self-identities as industrial workers and as family breadwinners. And this failure is becoming endemic - their children are failing out of school in droves, drifting off the only route left to a middle-class life with dignity.

Source: The Economist

After being neglected by the political establishment for decades, and especially since Tony Blair ditched the labour part of the Labour party in 1994, this substantial minority of the electorate (perhaps 10%) no longer trust mainstream politics. They are demanding that their voices be heard and are turning to alternative populist parties that promise to address their complaints and their sense of grievance. Such parties succeed by presenting Britain's social problems and their solutions in simple, catchy, and moralistic fairy stories with a core of truth. For example, they tell their supporters that they are the victims of a stitch-up by mainstream establishment political parties that don't care about them.

Where does the xenophobia come in? Unfortunately, one of the few things Britain's losers have left  - and which they cling to all the more as their main claim to recognition by the state - is their ethnic identity. And when they look around for an explanation of their disenfranchisement, the arrival of foreigners seems a natural candidate. After all, over the same period that the white working class was being neglected, the immigrants' high profile political campaign for civil, political and social equality was succeeding. And didn't the decline of the industrial working class world begin at the same time mass migration started?

This disturbing demographic phenomenon is not unique to Britain. It is the engine behind the reinvigoration of racialised politics across the rich industrialised world, from America to Europe (including such famously liberal countries as Denmark and the Netherlands).

On the positive side, the core political demographic supporting such populist nativism is quite small, with the result that the political parties that represent them bounce up and down in the polls as mainstream voters alternately converge on them to protest establishment politics (such as austerity) and are repelled by their political naivete and moral opportunism. So they are unlikely to ever achieve significant power, especially in a country divided into hundreds of first past the post parliamentary constituencies.

On the negative side, however, such populist nativism has already had a powerful influence on our politics by moving the centre ground and forcing the mainstream parties to tack towards where the votes seem to be. Also, unlike the first two causes - perception and austerity - this source of nativism seems likely to be a feature of our politics for some time. At least until the shameful disenfranchisement of this social minority is addressed at its roots and its members are integrated into the values and opportunities of modern British society.

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Kenan Malik provides an excellent overview of Britain's politics of immigration over at his blog, Pandaemonium

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