Tuesday, 7 January 2014

the British and immigration

Warning: the following post may contain sweeping generalisations about the characteristics of entire populations based on very little evidence. If such national stereotyping offends you please look away now. If what you prefer is racial stereotyping, please click here.

So, it seems that 78% of the British public surveyed think that immigration to the UK should be reduced, even though 30% believe that immigration has a good or very good effect on the UK economy. In fact 34% of those who rated the economic impact of immigration as very good still want it to reduce, according to the survey.

The easy way to interpret these findings is that the British are inherently racist and are allowing this instinctive racial prejudice to be whipped up by the right-wing tabloid press. So, like Nigel Farage (who in a recent interview named Enoch Powell as his political hero) they would prefer to suffer economically so long as it meant keeping the foreigners out.

This is certainly a tempting argument, if you look at some of the front pages British tabloids have run in recent years. Look here for instance. And no, they aren't made up.

Yet there is a part of this argument that actually doesn't ring true to me. In everyday life, here in London where issues of race are all around us, I cannot remember the last time I witnessed any sort of behaviour that I would regard as racist. I am convinced that people are much less racist in their attitudes now than they were in the past and that British people are less prone to be racist than are say the French or the Italians.

As head teacher of a large London comprehensive I had to deal with many hundreds of argumentative teenagers of various racial, religious and ethnic origins yet never found racism in interpersonal relations to be a particularly significant issue (nowhere near as significant as homophobia for instance). Yes there was the occasional racist insult but the kids, almost without exception, saw these as unacceptable. Indeed, race seems to have virtually disappeared as an issue for these kids: a prominent member of the unpleasantly violent Dem Africans gang was white British and another Turkish. This is a very different situation to that which pertained even 20 years ago, when racist insults were much commoner in schools and gangs tended to be mono-ethnic and indeed defined by race. Interracial marriages are now so commonplace as to attract no attention whatever where not so long ago they were treated with deep suspicion and even anger.

In Italy by contrast my daughter recently witnessed racist abuse of African street sellers by uniformed police of a sort that would be unthinkable in the UK and in France the comedy l'Italien exposed a degree of anti-Arab racism that is seen there more or less as normal. Yet France and Italy are both signatories to the Schengen accord and in neither is there the same sense as in Britain of paranoia about immigrants swamping the country.

Indeed on closer examination it really does seem to me that British anxieties are much more to do with national populations than with race. The image most people seem to hold is of our island nation desperate to resist invasion and keep the alien hordes the other side of the channel like armies outwith the castle's moat. Indeed the use of this metaphor in the phrase "pulling up the drawbridge" points up precisely the difference between attitudes to race and attitudes to immigration: those pulling up the drawbridge are previous immigrants into Britain and their descendants (which covers all of us I suppose) who are keener than "native" Brits to resist further immigration. In fact in the study cited here a higher proportion of British Asians than White British believe that immigration should be stopped permanently.

So why is this? Why is a population which is, by comparison with previous eras and other countries, fairly tolerant and accepting of other races so intolerant and fearful of immigrants and immigration?

Partly of course this is the fault of the lies peddled by the tabloids and implicitly endorsed by government ministers. The UK population now seem to take it for granted that immigrants milk Britain for benefits and take all the council houses, despite this study for instance showing that immigrants are 59 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 57 per cent less likely to live in social housing. Now, I wonder where they could have got such an idea from...

But that isn't all of it, I don't think. There has to be a kernel of distrust of the outsider somewhere for the tabloids, UKIP and the Tories to play on. So where does that distrust originate?

Well, I will posit two explanations:

1) It's because Brits are so terrified of ABROAD that anything that originates from there is to be distrusted.
Brits do seem to be almost uniquely frightened once outside the boundaries of their own country- more so than any other population with the possible exception of the Chinese. As a people, we have the linguistic ineptitude of all English-speaking peoples without the gung-ho adventurousness of the Aussies or the arrogant sense of entitlement of the Yanks. Wherever we go we huddle together in safe English speaking enclaves or scuttle about in abject terror that we may be called upon to communicate with someone who DOESN'T SPEAK ENGLISH! Some of us, it is true, appear totally at home in Provence or the Algarve, but on closer examination it is clear that we are so only because these places are now as Anglicised as the Costa del Sol.

It seems that the Brits are unique in creating such tropes as the pool-bed-hogging German early-riser and we clearly see foreign holidays as brave sojourns into enemy territory. Other Europeans seem much less phased: they are used to having to operate in a number of languages and can drive from one country to another without ceremony (they don't even have to pack their suitcases full of PG tips and packets of hobnobs). The Americans by contrast seem to see other countries as so utterly alien that they are merely quaint and hence no threat, and Aussies wonder what all the fuss is about, since wherever they go there never seem to be as many highly venomous animals as there are at home.

And I am convinced that this fear of abroad carries over to attitudes to immigration. Apart from anything else, the numbers generally quoted on the subject are for NET migration (numbers of immigrants minus numbers leaving the country) and there is a strictly limited number of places that the British (or the English at least- the Scots and Irish are more adventurous) are prepared to go.

2) It's because Brits distrust the motives of those with the power to control migration
The perception of who immigrants are and why they want to come here seems to have changed radically over recent years, in a very interesting way. It used to be that "immigrant" was equated with "asylum seeker" and conjured up images EITHER of terrified refugees from appalling conflicts overseas OR of hook-handed hate-preachers pretending to be terrified refugees... (depending on your political viewpoint and/or readership of the Daily Mail). Now, it seems, that is not what people think of first when immigration is discussed. Instead, people now see impoverished Eastern Europeans coming over here EITHER to do a fantastically professional but incredibly cheap cash-in-hand job of refitting your kitchen OR to lounge about in council houses claiming benefits (again, depending on political orientation/Daily Mail readership/experience of having cheap cash-in-hand job done on the kitchen).

And in a sense this is not surprising. It turns out that, with the freeing up of employment restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians entering the UK major companies and institutions here have been falling over each other to recruit Romanian and Bulgarian workers. Suddenly they have discovered a new and even cheaper way to outsource work, without even leaving the UK- just get foreign workers in to do the work for next to nothing right here! You don't even need to pay the minimum wage if you go through an agency. Win, win!

And this is hardly the first time this has happened. It seems pretty clear that New Labour's attitudes to Polish immigration were prompted more by the desire to boost the economy than some sort of impulse towards internationalism. Which of course it did, much to the advantage of the captains of industry and the money men who duly profited enormously, while average wages failed to keep up with inflation.

So whilst it is shameful for Britain to turn its back on the refugees from Syria for instance some of the British attitudes to immigration are neither as racist nor as illiberal as they might appear. Immigration has served the rich of the UK very, very well indeed. Immigrants provide a net boost to economic output and increased economic output, more than ever before, benefits the rich. It is perhaps hardly surprising that the less well-off resent the way the movement of people has been used by the rich to keep their wages down.

It is even almost understandable that they direct that resentment towards the least culpable parties to this process: the immigrants themselves.

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