Last week I wrote a critique of Melanie Phillips’ column in which she claimed the progressive ground for critics of mass immigration. Here is her response to my critique. My thanks to Melanie for taking the time and trouble to write this. I have written a response which I originally posted as a comment but have now attached to the end of this post.
‘A compendium of straw men, misunderstandings
and questionable assertions’
I’m afraid Kenan’s criticism of my Times column, despite the habitual elegance of his prose, is a compendium of straw men, misunderstandings and questionable assertions. I’ll try to deal with them as succinctly as I can.
He finds it ‘extraordinary’ that I have ‘the gall’ to claim that any opposition to mass immigration draws accusations of xenophobia, racism, bigotry or a ‘Little England’mentality. Those who have expressed such opposition, however, such as David Goodhart, Frank Field, myself and others, have been vilified in precisely those terms.
‘Far from immigration being a taboo subject, there are few issues about which politicians and journalists are more obsessed…’
True, it is now an issue that is near the top of the political agenda, but that is a recent phenomenon. Labour, Tories and the BBC have all acknowledged that for years they brushed public concerns about this under the carpet and failed to discuss it.
‘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’.
I am not aware of anyone making such a sweeping claim.
‘Since 1988 some 20,000 migrants have died trying to enter Europe, two-thirds of them perishing in the Mediterranean…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.’
The suggestion that because some people tragically die trying to break national laws it follows that those laws are wrong and that those nations should therefore abolish them because they are not entitled to make such laws is certainly an unusual argument in a democracy. It is a non-sequitur, comes close to endorsing illegal activity, and even implies that lawbreaking should succeed as moral blackmail.
‘…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.’
Kenan has got this back to front. The social pressures caused by mass immigration, the trashing of such concerns and the vilification of those who express them have contributed in large measure of the sense of political alienation across.
‘Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be a means through which many perceive these changes.’
The argument seems to be that, since Kenan cannot conceive of any justifiable reason for opposing mass immigration, that cannot be what concerns people; mass immigration must therefore be instead a proxy for concerns about other, unspecified, social changes. This is not only an assertion without any supporting evidence, but is a variation of the Marxist ‘false consciousness’argument, aka ‘I know better than the people what they think, because the people are too stupid to understand themselves what they think’.
‘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”.’
Indeed, that was not how it was seen then; but if an argument is used falsely in one set of circumstances, it does not follow that it must therefore be false when used in quite different circumstances.
The influx of Jews from eastern Europe at the turn of the last century was very small; indeed, since the number of Jews in the entire world was very small, there could not possibly have been the kind of influx being feared at that time. By contrast, the numbers coming into the UK now and which are entitled to immigrate in the future are so large as too be unsustainable, the equivalent (if current trends persist) of several additional large cities by 2028. Concern about the impact of those numbers is therefore not a prejudice; it is based on evidence. Bigotry involves beliefs that are demonstrably untrue. And despite Kenan’s disavowal, the comparison with Powell is indeed an invidious one.
‘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.’
This is a distorted extrapolation of what I wrote, which was as follows:
‘All of the above is given extra bite when it comes to Muslim immigration, the real elephant in the room. For while many Muslims want to adapt to the basic values of British and western society, a significant number want Britain instead to adapt to Islam.
‘The resentment that causes is compounded by branding such people Islamophobic bigots. Some of them undoubtedly are. But most simply want this liberal society to enforce its own rule: that the host culture gives freedom to minorities to do their own thing provided those minorities sign up to the host’s overarching set of values.
‘If minorities either refuse to play that game or become so numerous that they fragment that culture, the country will eventually become neither liberal nor a coherent society at all. For unless there is an overarching cultural story in the first place, there will be nothing to which minorities can attach themselves.’
I then went on to say that these mass immigration trends were rooted in the contemporary belief that the authority of the nation should be supplanted by trans-national institutions and instruments. In other words, the issue of Islamist separatism in Europe, although very serious and rarely talked about (is Kenan not himself alarmed by polls showing some 40-60% of young Muslims want to live under sharia in the UK?) was only part of the wider problem. It was not the heart of my argument. Moreover, I agree with him about the impact of multiculturalism and the way this has led to increased tribalism; that is what I have argued for years.
The rest of Kenan’s argument, the sneering at a ‘mythicised past’and ‘historical amnesia’and the claim that universalism does not damage social solidarity, merely combines gratuitous insults with precisely the kind of misguided post-nation assumptions about which I was writing.
But well done, Kenan, on winning the essay prize.
Melanie, my thanks for you taking the time to respond. A few observations about your post:
1. I never suggested that it was extraordinary to claim that ‘opposition to mass immigration draws accusations of xenophobia, racism, bigotry or a “Little England” mentality’. (In fact, I acknowledged that ‘some regard opposition to immigration as racist’ but observed that using this to dismiss criticism is ‘a way of avoiding having to answer the difficult questions’.) What I said was extraordinary was the insistence that immigration is still a taboo issue and that the only acceptable position today is support for mass immigration. That is an extraordinary claim to make, given the wall-to-wall coverage of the issue and the scramble by politicians of all hues to appear tougher-than-thou.
It is true that in the past politicians may have been reluctant to broach the issue (though that claim is overdone by critics of immigration). But you write as if this is still the case:
‘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’
And that claim, to me at least, is, frankly, baffling.
2. I don’t oppose Fortress Europe policies because 20,000 people have died over the past quarter of a century trying to enter Europe. I oppose such policies because they are unjust. From the use of Libyan and Moroccan security forces to act as European immigration guards to the arrest of fishermen aiding drowning migrants to the continent-wide system of detention centres, there is little moral about the construction of Fortress Europe. Nevertheless, there is no getting away from the fact that 20,000 people have died over the past quarter century. You suggest that my argument ‘implies that lawbreaking should succeed as moral blackmail’. That could be said of any opposition to unjust laws. In any case, we could turn your argument on its head. The logic of your view seems to be that 20,000 deaths is an acceptable price to pay for the creation of Fortress Europe. That is what I find morally problematic.
3. You suggest that since I ‘cannot conceive of any justifiable reason for opposing mass immigration, that cannot be what concerns people; mass immigration must therefore be instead a proxy for concerns about other, unspecified, social changes’. Actually, I have over a number of essays explored those social changes, and I summed up the argument (albeit very briefly) in this post:
‘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.’
It is incontestable that one of the key reasons for voters supporting populist parties across Europe is the sense that they have been abandoned by mainstream parties and have been left politically voiceless. What populist parties have done very well is link that sense of abandonment and voicelessness to the question of immigration and fear of the ‘Other’.
I find it strange, incidentally, that you should castigate me for wanting to look beyond how matters might appear on the surface. If all is as it appears on the surface, why would we need any form of scholarship or investigation?
4. It is true that ‘if an argument is used falsely in one set of circumstances, it does not follow that it must therefore be false when used in quite different circumstances’. What I am suggesting, however, is that contemporary arguments against immigration are misguided.
You insist that the current influx of immigrants is ‘unsustainable’. That, of course, was equally the argument a century ago. And the arguments as to why it is unsustainable are as vapid now as they were then. There is, in the abstract, no optimum level of immigration. The numbers of immigrants deemed ‘sustainable’ are always arbitrary. Throughout the twentieth century, virtually every wave of immigration was met with the claim that it was ‘unsustainable’. Come the next wave of immigration, and the previous wave now came to be seen as sustainable but the new wave not. At every point, in other words, what is regarded as a reasonable figure is calculated relative not to some abstract absorptive capacity, but to the actual numbers coming in. A ‘sustainable’ number is always a bit less than the current influx. And that is as true today as it was a century ago.
5. I am sorry you feel that I ‘distorted’ your views on Muslim immigration. I still think that it is a perfectly fair assessment to suggest that you are worried ‘not merely about numbers of immigrants, but specifically about the numbers of Muslims coming to Britain’.
You ask whether or not I am ‘alarmed by polls showing some 40-60% of young Muslims want to live under sharia in the UK’. There are two points I would make about this.
First, for some ‘sharia’ means barbaric practices such as enforced veiling or the stoning of adulterers, and strict adherence to an Islamic code. For many Muslims, however, particularly in the West, it merely means that secular laws should be shaped by religious law. In this Muslims are little different from many Christians or Jews. In America, for instance, a Gallup poll found that 46% of people want Scripture to be ‘a source’ of laws and a further 9% want it to be the ‘only source’ of law.
Second, as a secularist, I am opposed not just to sharia, of whatever kind, but to any religious framework defining secular law. You, on the other hand, see secularism itself as a problem. Secularism, you argue, ‘far from expanding freedom… diminishes it’ and ‘aggressively destroys the common bonds of history, tradition and morality that keep a society together’, adding that ‘liberty is only upheld and safeguarded by legal, social and cultural traditions embedded in the ethics of the Bible’. This, it seems to me, is a poor way of challenging sharia. If you really want to oppose sharia, perhaps you should adopt a more secularist stance?
6. Finally, I am sorry if my argument strikes you as ‘sneering’ and as ‘gratuitously insulting’. It was not meant to. Perhaps you and I have a different notion of what constitutes a ‘sneer’ or a ‘gratuitous insult’. But my apologies, anyway, if that is how it came over. And my thanks for you engaging in the debate.