Sunday, 23 December 2018

Britain’s immigration debate is not only about economics

Culture, identity and a sense of fairness matter just as much to many people writes  CAMILLA CAVENDISH in The FT

Last summer I was sitting in a café in Boston, Lincolnshire , interviewing Karol, its enterprising Polish owner. He arrived in England to pick lettuces ten years ago, worked his way up to factory packing, and then started this little restaurant on a side street. Sipping tea, he told me of his high hopes for the pierogi dumplings cooked by his wife. 

I had sought out Karol as an example of the kind of immigrant we want in Britain — friendly and hard-working. He was sheepish about his very limited English, though, and said that his wife and parents, who have joined him, barely speak it at all. Their customers, he said with a tone of regret, are almost all Polish, Romanian and Lithuanian. Here on the east coast of England, the old residents and the new arrivals are largely living parallel lives. 

 This was perhaps inevitable. The population of this little town grew at more than double the average rate for England and Wales in ten years from 2004. This followed the decision of the Blair government to open the UK to the eastern European accession countries without a transitional period. There was a 460 per cent increase in immigration. Unsurprisingly, Boston registered the highest Leave vote of the 2016 referendum: almost 76 per cent. 

Boston is an extreme example, but it is only one of many places I have visited where we have utterly failed to integrate people — including, sometimes, those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The government has been attacked for attempting to limit low-skilled immigration in this week’s white paper. But it is trying to respond to a deep malaise which is driving far-right populism in both Europe and the US, and even in previously moderate Sweden. 

As Britain tumbles towards a future which I still hope will see us clinging on to the EU, not crashing out of it, I am concerned that so many members of the establishment continue to paint anxieties about migration as purely economic, the misplaced rage of those “left behind” by globalisation and the financial crisis. 

While these are clearly factors, this explanation overlooks the fact that the challenge is not merely an economic one, of wages and productivity — it is cultural, too. The Migration Advisory Committee, which has done so much to provide objective analysis of this fraught subject, has stated that migration from the European Economic Area “as a whole has had neither the large negative effects claimed by some, nor the clear benefits claimed by others”. Something else is going on: boiling resentment at years of being ignored by the ruling classes who have benefited most from immigration. 

Academics including Eric Kaufmann and Jens Hainmueller have shown that attitudes to immigration in the US and Europe are not as highly correlated with personal economic circumstances as many commentators assume. Many Leave voters and supporters of US president Donald Trump have been influenced more by deep fears about the impact on national identity. 

Economists will argue that consumers benefit from cheaper vegetables in the supermarkets. But Boston voters who might prefer to pay a bit more to preserve their sense of identity should not be lightly dismissed. If we do end up remaining in the EU, we must not simply breathe a sigh of relief and resume business as usual. 

This week’s argument over the proposed £30,000 income threshold for new arrivals will no doubt continue through the consultation period. So will the debate — vital for the NHS — over how to define a “shortage occupation”. But £30,000 was not plucked out of the air. It was based on the committee’s finding that EEA/EU migrants as a whole pay more in than they take out, in services and benefits — but only when they earn roughly £30,000 or more. 

This goes to the heart of what many people feel deeply: that no one should take out more than they have paid in. During David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s EU membership in 2015-16, polls showed that many people were aware that British taxpayers were paying child benefit to children who lived in Warsaw and had never set foot in Britain. 

Mr Cameron bumped up against not only the theology of free movement of people, but also the incompatibility between Britain’s free universal healthcare and school systems, and contributory social insurance schemes in other member states which require far higher levels of prior contribution before getting entitlement to benefits. 

The white paper states that people who arrive speaking only basic English are required to become more fluent; but I have interviewed many people who have survived for over a decade with no English at all. It makes a nod towards reducing entitlements for short-term workers, but does not address the question of contributions from people who want to put down roots and bring dependants, beyond the blunt instrument of income thresholds. We must bring back the contributory principle to our welfare state. 

I would never argue that immigration was the sole factor driving the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum. Nor will it be the sole consideration in any “people’s vote”. But we ignore it at our peril. This week, it felt as though the debate had shrunk back into convenient tracks. 

I hope that my friend Karol will succeed. Of course, if we crash out of the EU on March 29, high tariff barriers to agricultural imports will probably bankrupt our farms — and his café business. If that happens, Boston’s problem will no longer be too many people, but too few. 

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