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Gary Younge
Yes, we need an honest immigration debate. But this tough talk isn't it

Back in the mid-1980s, when Britain was contemplating what assurances to give immigrants from Hong Kong after the handover to China, my elderly next door neighbour, Mrs Stilling, expressed her concern.

"We're only a small island," she said, raising her arm at the elbow like a lever. "We can't take in all those people or the country would tip up."

It took me a while to realise that Mrs Stilling was not being metaphorical. She had a clear image in her head that if too many people came to the country the place could be upended, with the south sinking under the pressure as the nation flipped on its axis.

Mrs Stilling, a loyal Daily Mail reader who has since died, was a fantastic human being and a wonderful neighbour. Indeed it was precisely because she was a fantastic human being that we were her neighbours.

When my parents sought housing in the mid-1960s they had met with the frosty glares of home counties folk who did not welcome the idea of black people next door. Mrs Stilling was different. She had welcomed them and offered to warm the milk for my brother, who was still a baby. From that time on she was a great source of support and affection to my family.

Her views about the existential threat that immigration posed to Britain's geological bearings were not rooted in racial animus or cultural antipathy. But it was not rooted in fact either.

I could sympathise with her anxiety. Temperamentally, she was always ready to take a journey towards a future Britain she could never have imagined growing up. The trouble was that politically no one in power would ever accompany her, let alone occasionally challenge her.

This country has long needed a thoroughgoing conversation about immigration that could raise the debate among the general public. The fact that we have yet to have one is not because the left is unprepared or unwilling to engage, but because the right has proved itself incapable of contributing anything to that discussion that is intelligent, honest or informed.

Let's start with the clear acknowledgement that immigration in this period does pose serious problems. First of all, much of it is not voluntary but forced by extreme poverty, natural disasters and wars. It would be a better world if people did not have to move to eat. Environmental policies – particularly on climate change – arms control and a responsible foreign policy without unnecessary wars are all integral to immigration policy since they would all assist in allowing many people to stay where they would rather be: at home.

Even then, when almost half the world's population live on two dollars a day, many will still head to the west not to thrive but to survive. Destitution is a powerful motivating force. Build a 10-foot fence with food on one side and a hungry person will build an 11-foot ladder to get to it. Turning your borders into a fortress and filling your jails with the globe's poor does not solve the problem. At the very best it contains and suppresses it, at worst it criminalises poverty and brutalises its victims.

Others are driven not by desperation but aspiration. This too can cause problems. Developing nations often invest in the education of their citizens only to see many of the best and brightest cherry-picked by the wealthy. A recent World Bank report revealed that three-quarters of the nurses trained in the English-speaking Caribbean leave to work in the US, Britain and Canada. This has left the region with 3,300 unfilled nursing posts and far fewer nurses per head than many wealthy countries.

Once again, there are no simple answers. But there are important principles at stake. Aspiration is a good thing. So is freedom of movement. When the eastern bloc prevented it, in the name of politics, they were rightly chastised for not letting people out. When the west stops letting people in, in the name of economics, it is no less wrong. The west has openly embraced the free movement of capital even as it stifles the free movement of people. Machines that make profit have more rights than people who need food. That cannot be right.

It is also true that the arrival of large numbers of people in a short space of time can put pressure on public services and, on occasion, depress wages for the low paid. A closer look reveals a more chequered landscape. Home Office studies show that migrants pay more in taxes than they use in public services and lead to better wages for high and medium skilled workers.

Moreover, with an ageing population – more than half of Britons will be 50 or older by 2050 – we need more young workers than we can produce. They have to come from somewhere.

Finally, there is the problem of racism and xenophobia. Once again it would be perverse to blame migrants for the hatred they receive. Research shows it would also be wrongheaded. An IPPR study earlier this month shows that it is not the presence of migrants that prompts this antagonism but the absence of political alternatives. The survey revealed that nine out of 10 of the local authorities with the highest proportions of BNP votes had lower than average immigration, while areas with lower voter turnout were more likely to have higher proportions voting BNP. "What our findings can finally lay to rest is the mistaken popular belief that it is experiences of immigration which leads to people voting for the BNP," said IPPR co-director Carey Oppenheim.

That's before we get to the cultural and social advantages that come with the constant introduction of new people from around the world. These have made Britain a global hub that punches well above its demographic weight.

One needn't agree with any of this analysis to recognise that there can be no meaningful debate about immigration in Britain (or anywhere else) that does not address neoliberal globalisation, trade policy, development, aid, colonial legacy, the European Social Fund, the dependency ratio and the low paid.

But that is not the debate we have been having. Indeed, it is not a debate we have ever had. It's not accusations of racism that are stopping that conversation, but racism itself. For if there is a liberal elite out there thwarting discussion on immigration, it is doing a very bad job. The tabloids and middle-market papers seem to talk about little else, and whenever they play their inflammatory tunes the politicians duly dance. Each tries to sound tougher than the last and with each effort they all sound more deluded.

Nick Clegg's support for an amnesty for the undocumented offered a welcome respite. But even then all he was really doing was openly endorsing a practice that has been carried out by both parties for more than 20 years.

For the most part, the political responses to fear-mongering seek not to enlighten the participants but pander to them. "We deport someone every eight minutes," immigration minister Meg Hillier tells voters in Dagenham, where the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, is mounting a challenge against Margaret Hodge. "We fingerprint anyone who comes in for over six months. Foreigners now have to carry special national identity cards."

It is not clear how targeting foreigners helps anyone born in Dagenham. But it's not difficult to see how it would help the BNP.

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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