On Monday my essay ‘In Defence of Diversity’ – which exposes the hollowness of contemporary anti-immigration rhetoric, and places it in historical context – won the 3 Quarks Daily 2014 essay prize. And on Monday, the Times’ new columnist Melanie Phillips – my old colleague from the days when I was a panelist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze – published a polemic trying to claim the progressive ground for critics of mass immigration. Her arguments are familiar – they are the very arguments I unpicked in my essay. So here are Phillips’ main points – and my response. If only she had read my essay first…
‘Even now, it is still the issue that dare not speak its name… Mass immigration is still something on which only one view is considered socially acceptable: that there is nothing wrong with it.’
This, of course, has become the standard meme among anti-immigration campaigners, endlessly pushed by authors such as David Goodhart and Paul Collier. I find it extraordinary that anyone still has the gall to make such a claim. To suggest that there is no debate about immigration, or that the only position that one can hold is in defence of mass immigration, is about as credible as suggesting that Nigel Farage is a shy, retiring type who hates stirring up controversy.
Far from immigration being a taboo subject, there are few issues about which politicians and journalists are more obsessed, and few ideas that have more acquired the status of uncontestable wisdom than the need to impose tighter immigration controls. UKIP leader Nigel Farage leads a party that has no MPs, nine MEPs and achieves around 10 per cent in opinion polls. Yet, he dominates the airwaves and comment pages and effectively sets the political agenda on the question of immigration. Mainstream politicians of all stripes are falling over themselves to show how tough they are on the issue, how wrong they were not to have been so tough in the past, and why there is no need to support UKIP because they, the mainstream politicians, are happy to push through all manner of restrictions on immigration.
In reality ‘what is rarely questioned’, as I pointed out in my essay ‘In Defence of Diversity’, ‘ is not immigration but the idea that immigration is responsible for Europe’s social ills’. Consider the response to the Lampedusa tragedy last October when a boat carrying migrants sank in the Mediterranean, leading to the deaths of more than 300 people. In the wake of the tragedy European politicians expressed much anger and grief. What no one was willing to acknowledge was that the tragedy not merely an accident but the gruesomely inevitable consequence of EU border policies. For more than three decades the EU, driven by an obsession with immigration, has been constructing a Fortress Europe to keep the ‘unwanted’ from landing on the shores of the continent, spending hundreds of millions of euros on external border controls. Since 1988 some 20,000 migrants have died trying to enter Europe, two-thirds of them perishing in the Mediterranean. And what have European nations done in response? They have continued to strengthen Fortress Europe and charged fishermen who saved drowning migrants with aiding illegal immigration. The only policy that could prevent more such tragedies is the only policy that no European politician will countenance: a more liberal system of border controls. It is not just that politicians and policy makers are not la la liberal in the way that Phillips suggests. It is also that none will consider even the kind of liberalisation that might help prevent a tragedy such as the one off Lampedusa.
The point that critics of immigration like Melanie Phillips miss is that however hysterical the anti-immigration arguments may become, however tough politicians seek to be, none of it will assuage public anxieties about immigration. That is because the anxieties are not really about immigration at all. Rather, immigration has become symbolic of unacceptable change, though it is often not responsible for such change. Behind contemporary hostility to immigration lies the breakdown of traditional political mechanisms, the growing chasm between the elite and the public, the abandonment by mainstream parties of their traditional constituencies, the marginalization of labour as a political voice, a sense of voicelessness felt by many sections of the population.
Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be a means through which many perceive these changes. Partly this is a consequence of the way that the public discussion has been framed, with politicians from all sides presenting immigrants as a problem, even a threat. Partly also it is because the forces of globalization, or the internal wranglings of political parties, are difficult to conceptualise. One’s Bangladeshi or Jamaican or Romanian neighbour is easy to see. It is this that has led many to view the social, economic and political transformation that has occurred over the past half century in terms of a loss of identity, of culture, of their place in the national story.
Immigration has clearly brought major changes to this country. But had not a single immigrant come here, Britain today would still be a vastly different nation from half a century ago. Feminism, consumerism, youth culture, increased social mobility, the decimation of manufacturing industry, the rise of the finance and service sectors, the atomisation of society, the rise of free market economics, the crumbling of the welfare state, the neutering of trade unions, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But it is immigrants who have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse.
The consequence of making immigration the scapegoat for deeper social and political problems is to create a challenge for which there can be no solution. These deeper problems will remain untackled. And however much immigration is curtailed, or anti-immigration rhetoric ramped up, public anxieties will not ease.
‘Epithets such as xenophobe, Little Englander, racist, bigot and of course rightwinger are hurled against anyone rash enough to point such things out.’
It is true that some regard contemporary opposition to immigration as racist. And some don’t. Just as some opposition to immigration is racist. And some isn’t.
I have long defended critics like David Goodhart from the charge that they are ‘bigots’. I have also argued that many supporters of populist parties such as UKIP, the Front National or Sweden Democrats are not old-fashioned racists but are responding to a felt sense of voicelessness and marginalization, of abandonment by the mainstream parties and of world out of control. Indeed, as I observe in my essay ‘In Defence of Diversity’, contemporary fears about immigration derive in part from the breakdown of old-fashioned racialised identities:
‘If the current debate draws upon old themes, it also takes place in a new context. [In the past] there existed a strong sense of British identity, rooted primarily in the concepts of race and empire. Hostility to immigration was part of a racialised defence of national identity. Behind contemporary hostility to immigration lies a sense of the dissolution of such identity, of the erosion of common values.’
To dismiss all critics of fear-mongering over immigration as suggesting that such fear-mongering is rooted in racism or bigotry is to adopt the same stance as those who do shout ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’: it is a way of avoiding having to answer the difficult questions.
‘I have my own sensitivities about this. My family were Jewish immigrants escaping poverty and oppression; my father’s parents came from a village in Poland, my mother’s grandparents from a village in what is now Belarus. The iniquity of the 1905 Aliens Act, which heavily restricted Jewish immigrants and refugees in a climate foul with the claim that they were criminals, prostitutes and vagrants, is burned into my consciousness — and my conscience. But the numbers of Jews, along with the Huguenots, Irish or Afro-Caribbeans who variously arrived on British shores, were minuscule compared with the immigration rate today. And numbers do matter.’
Yes, previous waves of immigration have often been much smaller than in recent years. But, again as I pointed out in my essay, fears about immigration have remained the same whatever the numbers:
‘Throughout the twentieth century, virtually every wave of immigration, whether of Irish and Jews to Britain, Italians and North Africans to France, Catholics and Chinese to America, was met with the claim that the influx was too large, too culturally distinct, too corrosive of stability and continuity. Come the next, larger wave of immigration, and the previous wave now came to be seen as acceptable in terms of what the nation could absorb but the new wave was not. And it is against this background that we need to understand the fears of Goodhart, Collier and Caldwell. All insist that Europe today faces a unique danger. All the arguments recycle the panic expressed in response to every wave of immigration.’
Melanie Phillips can now (rightly) suggest that the numbers of Jews coming to Britain at the turn of the twentieth century was ‘miniscule’. That was not, however, how it was seen then. ‘There is no end to them in Whitechapel and Mile End’, claimed one witness giving evidence to the 1903 Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, which had been set up by the government to try to assuage fears about the ‘Jewish influx’. ‘These areas of London might be called Jerusalem’. The Conservative MP Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon expressed the same sentiment through a quite extraordinary metaphor. ‘Ten grains of arsenic in a thousand loaves would be unnoticeable and perfectly harmless’, he told Parliament, ‘but the same amount put into one loaf would kill the whole family that partook of it.’
The numbers of Asians and Caribbeans coming to Britain in the 1950s was seen even less as ‘miniscule’. (As an aside, it is interesting that Phillips’ list of immigrants who came in small numbers includes the Irish and Afro-Caribbeans but not Asians; whether that omission is accidental or deliberate, I do not know). ‘The question of numbers and of the increase in numbers’, Enoch Powell insisted, lies at ‘the very heart of the problem’. ‘Whole areas, towns and parts of England’, he claimed, were being ‘occupied by different sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population’. A decade later Margaret Thatcher gave a notorious TV interview in which she claimed that there were in Britain ‘an awful lot’ of black and Asian immigrants and that ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.’ The echoes with the contemporary immigration debate – and Phillips’ own arguments – are unmistakeable. (And before Phillips, or anyone else, suggests that in making the comparison with Enoch Powell I am implying that she is racist or bigoted, I am not; I am simply pointing out that what is now seen as an acceptable, indeed ‘miniscule’, level of immigration was at the time seen as an invasion and an ‘occupation’, the very phrases now being used to describe contemporary immigration.)
‘This is because a shared national story provides the glue that keeps a society together. If the numbers are too great, that glue comes unstuck. The majority culture becomes just one diminishing voice in a decibel auction of competing groups.’
Again, the same argument has been used against every previous wave of immigration. Arthur Balfour was British Prime Minister at the time of the 1905 Aliens Act. Without such a law, he told Parliament, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ By the 1950s, the Jewish community had come to be seen as part of the British cultural landscape. But the same arguments used against Jews half a century earlier were now deployed against a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. A Colonial Office report of 1955, for instance, echoed Arthur Balfour, fearing that ‘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’. And 50 years on, the same kinds of arguments are used against a new wave of immigrants.
It was not just in Britain that such fears were expressed about immigrants undermining ‘the shared national story’, nor Jews the only group about which people were fearful. There was in the post war years in America a major campaign against Catholic immigration from Europe. Catholicism, Paul Blanchard wrote in his 1948 book American Freedom and Catholic Power, was an ‘undemocratic system of alien control’, a ‘survival of medieval authoritarianism that has no rightful place in the democratic American environment’. America he insisted required a ‘resistance movement’ to oppose ‘every intolerant or separatist or un-American feature of those policies’. Blanchard was, as Doug Saunders observes, no ‘fringe pamphleteer or a religious crank’. He was a senior of the Nation, an prominent lawyer and one-time State Department official. His book, praised by the likes of Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, spent 11 months on the New York Times bestseller lists, sold 240,000 copies in its first edition and went through 26 printings. The idea that Catholics are ‘unAmerica’, that they cannot fit into American society, would today be regarded as absurd. But it is no more so than similar arguments made about today’s immigrants.
‘All of the above is given extra bite when it comes to Muslim immigration. For while many Muslims want to adapt to the values of Western society, a significant number want Britain instead to adapt to Islam. The resentment caused is compounded by branding those concerned about this as bigots. Some of them undoubtedly are. But most simply want this liberal society to enforce its own rule: that it welcomes minorities, provided they sign up to the values of the host culture. If minorities either refuse to play that game or become so numerous that they fragment the host culture, the country will eventually become neither liberal nor a coherent society at all.’
Now we are getting to the heart of the argument. Phillips’ real fear is not merely about numbers of immigrants, but specifically about the numbers of Muslims coming to Britain. In expressing such fears, Phillips is not alone. A whole host of writers, such as Bruce Bawer, Mark Steyn and Christopher Caldwell have promoted similar anxieties. The creation of Muslim communities in Europe is, Calldwell writes in his book Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, more akin to ‘colonization’ than immigration. Islam ‘is not enhancing or validating European culture; it is supplanting it’.
Again a little historical perspective is useful. For again, the historical echoes are unmistakeable. The 1903 Royal Commission on Alien Immigration expressed the same fears about Jews as Phillips now feels about Muslims. Jewish immigrants, it suggested, were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’. I wonder if Phillips would say of such claims, or those of figures such as Major Evans-Gordon whom I quoted earlier, that ‘The resentment caused is compounded by branding those concerned about this as bigots’?
In any case, the history of Muslim immigration belies the claim that Muslim immigrants ‘refuse to play that game’ as Phillips puts it. In the 1960s and 1970s Muslim immigrants did not yearn to express their differences but, rather, demanded that they should not be treated differently. Only subsequently did Muslims, from a generation that was ironically more integrated than that of their parents, begin to assert their cultural distinctiveness. Why? In part because of the imposition of multicultural policies and the creation of a more tribal nation.
Even today the views of Muslims are not that different from those of other groups as Doug Saunders shows in The Myth of the Muslim Tide, his superb debunking of the panic-mongering. For instance, in a study of national pride commissioned by the think tank Demos, 83% of Muslims said they were ‘proud to be a British citizen’ – a higher rate than for Britons in general (79%). It is true that an alarming number of Muslims support political violence. 7% of American Muslims, for instance, think that acts of violence against civilian targets are ‘sometimes justified’. Another 1% think it is ‘often justified’. Alarming, that is, until you realize that the figure is lower than that of many other groups. A full 24% of Americans in general think that bomb attacks aimed at civilians are ‘often and sometimes justified’ and 6% feel they are ‘completely justified’. Similarly in Europe. When asked if ‘attacks on civilians are morally justified’, 1% of the French population, 1% of Germans and 3% of Britons answered ‘yes’; the corresponding figures for Muslims in those countries were 2%, 0.5% and 2%. Seven per cent of the French public, 10% of the German and 10% of Britons thought that it is ‘justifiable to use violence in a noble cause’ – as compared to 8% of French Muslims, 2% of German Muslims and 8% of British Muslims. (All the polls are referenced in Saunders’ book.) ‘The facts’, Saunders observes, ‘are unambiguous here. Across the Western world, support for violence and terrorism among Muslims is no higher than that of the general population, and in some cases it is lower.’
What the fear-mongers about Muslim immigration conflate (just as fear-mongers about Jewish, Catholic and other immigrant groups did in the past) is the idea of peoples and of values. People of North African or South Asian parentage, they seem to believe, will inevitably cleave to a different set of values than those of European ancestry. Why? Being born to European parents is no passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia?
It is the universalists who seem to be enacting the belief that there is no such thing as society, only citizens of the world. Those who oppose mass immigration are not narrow-minded drawbridge-raisers. They are instead defending democracy, the nation and the ties that really do bind.
This, again, is a familiar claim. David Goodhart, for instance, made exactly the same charge in his response to my review of his book The British Dream, claiming that in defending mass immigration I am forced
‘to adopt a sort of methodological individualism – there are only individuals, floating free of culture, tradition, language, ways of life, who can just slot into modern Britain without changing anything. This is the left’s equivalent of “there is no such thing as society”.’
I have, in fact, long been critical of liberal views of individualism. I am, however, equally critical of the communitarian concepts that often underlie anti-immigration rhetoric. Such concepts are rooted in Burkean notions of a community as constituted through history and bound primarily by its past, ‘an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space’, as Burke himself put it. Values, in the Burkean tradition, are defined as much by place and tradition as by reason and necessity.
It is not the notion of society, or of community, that I reject but the idea that the values and identities that bind such communities should derive primarily from tradition and place. I think rather of collectives bound together by aspirations for the future, by values necessary for social transformation, for the kinds of societies we want to create, rather than by history, tradition and a mythicised past. Universal values are an essential part of creating such collectives.
Whether or not one thinks that universalism conflicts with social solidarity – as Melanie Phillips and David Goodhart insist it does – depends on how one defines ‘solidarity’. If we define it in narrow particularist terms, in terms of a specific history or ethnicity or tradition, then by definition the two must conflict. If, however, we view it in political terms – solidarity as collective action in pursuit of a set of political ideals – then a universalist perspective becomes a means of establishing, rather than of undermining, solidarity. I view shared values and common identities not as set in the concrete of tradition but as emerging through a process of political dialogue and struggle, a process whereby different values are put to the test, and a collective language of citizenship emerges. It is the breakdown of such mechanisms, and the narrowing of the political sphere, over the past two decades that has made it much more difficult to create collective movements rooted in transformative values rather than historical ones – and has also fostered greater anxieties about immigration.
The irony is that in creating a mythicised past in which to root contemporary values, critics of immigration such as Melanie Phillips or David Goodhart obscure the real history, and mask what we can learn from it. Contemporary fear-mongering about immigration rests on historical amnesia about past waves of immigration. Few issues so express the truth of the old adage that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The paintings are, from top down, Lubaina Himid, Between the Two My Heart is Balanced (From the Tate exhibition ‘Migrations: Journeys into British Art’, January-August 2012), Mark Gertler, Jewish Family and ‘Abstract Islam’ by Salwa Naim.