I believe that issues of immigration and racism are quite, quite different. Racism is an ugly word for an ugly state of mind. It encompasses all manner of unacceptable beliefs, practices, judgments and images; intolerance, prejudice, discrimination, street riots and hooded bigots. Immigration is the process by which foreign nationals become citizens, regardless of race, sex or age. It pains me therefore when so-called liberal and politically-correct folk lob the word ‘racist’ like a grenade at anyone who speaks out on the subject of immigration in the hope that those wanting to debate openly will run for cover. It takes a brave person to hurl the grenade back and insist that immigration policy is something we must debate, discuss and resolve with open minds and clear heads and without resorting to name-calling, histrionics and the tipping of tubs of heated accusations on the heads of debaters like boiling oil.
I believe that immigration policy must balance our national interest with those of the individuals that wish to join or leave our country. We cannot take a “fortress Britain” approach but neither can there be an unfettered ‘open door’ policy. All parties -Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – need to grasp this nettle and start to talk about the subject and conduct an open debate to establish targets and limits for balanced and fair population movement. Those targets and limits will move and be adjusted over time as and when necessary but they will give our constituents and fellow countrymen some confidence that we are addressing a real concern of theirs.
Immigration and the plight of refugees are particularly emotive subjects for me because I am the son of an immigrant. Indeed, my mother was a refugee twice by the time she was fifteen. Until she was five she lived in the City of Breslau, a city which had been proudly German for seven hundred years. In 1945, as the Red Army advanced at the end of the Second World War, crushing the population and claiming the land, she and her parents fled to Leipzig with the sound of gunfire and heavy artillery ringing in their ears. Widespread ethnic cleansing took place and soon afterwards Breslau was renamed Wroclaw and became part of Poland.
Nine years later in East Germany, her family were tipped off that the local Communist party was investigating them and again they upped-sticks, went to Berlin and walked over the border into the West in the days before the Wall was built. Following an eight month spell in a refugee camp, her family settled in West Germany and within ten years I had been born in a British Military Hospital in Hanover.
With a German mother and having been born outside of the United Kingdom I have always therefore listened carefully to the debate on immigration. I am however, so often disappointed because sensible sentiments are typically squashed or shouted down by highly-opinionated people who brand you with words and designs of their making and choice, not yours. I therefore speak with both caution and a hope that I will not be wilfully misquoted as so many others have been before me.
My views on immigration must naturally be shaped by my views on nationhood. Without clearly knowing who we are as a nation, what we stand for, what the duties and obligations of our citizens are, how can we make decisions as to who can enter and live in our country on a permanent basis?
I believe that citizens of all countries have a responsibility to abide by the rule of law, be able to speak the national language (or languages), share the common customs and values of their nation and make a productive contribution. When I say common values, I am talking about values that evolve over time with each and every generation and wave of immigration.
The bedrock of citizenship embraces the rule of law, language, common values and financial contribution. All of these things are blind to race, the colour of a person’s skin and gender.
When I visit a foreign nation on parliamentary or private business I take care to abide by that country’s customs. I try valiantly (and largely unsuccessfully) to learn a few words of the language and take enough money to enjoy local the hostelries, souks and sights. I do this out of respect.
In my recent visit to Syria I fought hard to stop myself resting my foot on the other knee during meetings. A common enough gesture here in England, it is considered rude by Syrians – you should not show the sole of foot to the person you are talking to, especially when you are talking to President Assad, as I was. I remember that in Athens, my wife told me it was considered rude to kiss in public – or perhaps I had simply eaten too much garlic that day. In Germany, a man mowing his lawn on a Sunday is frowned upon. Drink in Oman on a Friday, or walk through Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo in a bikini and you can expect to be arrested.
Every society has its own customs, both written in law and unwritten, and it is the responsibility of its citizens to know them and abide by them or try and change them over time. Everyone must play by the same rules else chaos comes a calling. Only by sharing values, laws and language and working to weave a stable economic system can a strong, coherent, society or civilization be built. I am not talking about a community of clones. By sharing law, language and economic values we have and can protect religious freedom, cultural traditions and the broadest sweep of political views and personal choice.
This is not to say that I do appreciate and respect cultural and ethnicity in my own country and my own constituency. Shortly after the 11th September atrocities, I was invited to attend a multi-faith service at a local synagogue where Christians, Hindus and Moslems worshipped alongside members of the local Jewish community. I was not required to wear one but I asked for a yarmulka out of respect for the Jewish faith. Smiling gratefully, the Chief Rabbi gave me one. Towards the end of the service I was pleased to hear a dedication to Her Majesty the Queen and how seamlessly the church had embroidered respect for the Royal Family into their belief system. Similarly, when I attended services in Mosques in both Regent’s Park and Damascus I knelt, bowed my head and faced Mecca out of respect to the Muslim faith.
I’d like to look at the subject of immigration today from several points of view.
Firstly, from a demographic and an economic angle I’d like to ask questions such as: – Does our population need people of a certain age or sex? Does immigration make financial sense for our economy? When I say ‘our’ here, I mean all current citizens of the United Kingdom, regardless of race, age and sex.
Secondly, from an International Relations point of view, what obligations do we have to help those who suffer in other countries at the hands of tyrannical or oppressive governments, those seeking refuge or asylum, and those in countries who simply lack the qualities that we here in Britain hold so dear: freedom, democracy, and tolerance?
Thirdly, from an historical perspective. We cannot ignore the fact that we both built and lost an Empire, that slavery once existed here and that millions of our citizens have family ties to relatives in those other countries. What on-going obligations and responsibilities–if any–do we have as a result of the actions of generations before us?
I’ll start first with demographics. I start here because the subject bears on facts and statistics which can be checked and debated in the cold light of day rather than the cauldron of conviction and ideals. From and after facts we can move on to thornier issues of what is fair and right for us to do from other perspectives. If any of my research and statistics are wrong, I welcome being corrected.
As I understand it, contrary to popular opinion, Britain does not have a shrinking population. Taking both immigration and emigration out of the picture, our population is likely to remain stable over the next few decades at around 60 million. Our working population is however slowly rising–largely as a result of the increase in retirement age of woman from 60 to 65. As a result there is no ‘demographic time bomb’ ticking since the ratio of economically dependent children and pensioners compared to the number of potential working-age population will actually improve over the next twenty years.
Secondly it is important to show that the United Kingdom is not sitting on a tremendous amount of space and already has problems that stretch its social infrastructure. We are already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, twice as densely populated as France, eight times as populated as America.
Most immigrants settle in London and the South East which is already easily the most densely populated part of our country. Our public services there are already overloaded and having more people puts even more pressure on our hospitals, schools and transport systems. In the South East, patients sometimes have to wait up to two weeks just to see a GP. Some of our hospitals are so packed that it may take up to six hours to get surgery even in accident and emergency situations. Train stations in London such as Victoria and King’s Cross have to close occasionally for safety because the crowds outside it are just too big. None of these problems are caused by immigration. The problems are complex and the causes many. But in all cases we should realize additional demands on the system will add even more pressure and in some cases, when service provision cannot be stretched further and instead it will simply break.
We do not need immigration in the way that America did in the early part of the 20th Century when its immigration was three times the level that it is today. Those workers fuelled industrial growth and helped to populate a country whose land was still being settled.
There may be and will be certain specific skill shortages in this country that we could fill using immigration. If for example, we are and will be short of cardiac surgeons or nurses for the foreseeable future we can develop a quota for these professions.
There are however no generalised labour shortages in Europe or the UK, particularly not skilled labour shortages. Unskilled workers are four times more likely to be unemployed than their skilled counterparts.
It is, of course, possible to have a surplus of skilled and semi-skilled workers at the same time as having a labour shortage, if the skills are not appropriate. A coal miner may or may not be prepared to retrain as a call centre operator. A data input clerk may not be prepared to retrain as a nurse but surely the answer is not to bring in low or no-skill immigrants who are willing to work harder for less. There are over 100,000 fully-trained nurses in the UK, who are not working as nurses because pay and conditions are so bad, yet the NHS continues to import thousands of workers often from developing countries which can least afford to lose this scarce, skilled human resource. What this means is that average wage rates in the NHS stay pitifully low.
Low pay and widespread unemployment is good for some businesses that need a big pond of cheap labour–how would our offices be cleaned so cheaply without them–but in the long run we must draw our own unemployed back into the workforce before we reach outside of our borders? Companies that like cheap and compliant labour get higher profits. Middle income earners who want cheap home cleaners and to be served by cheap waiters will expect to use foreign workers. Unskilled and semi-skilled UK citizens competing with unskilled immigrants will lose out in the jobs market because of the rates of pay they will demand. The long term unskilled and unemployed can easily become semi-detached from traditional society because they have no longer have a stake in it and instead watch the richer getting richer on television whilst their prospects bleaken. Surely the focus must be on retraining and incentives to get people back to work rather? If there wasn’t the opportunity to hire so cheaply and so temporarily, firms would have to get friendlier to older workers, workers with children and workers who need flexible schedules or part-time employment.
In the long run, cheaper labour in manufacturing is only a short-term fix. We will never be able to compete with labour intensive industries in the developing countries and it is a mistake to try. Raising productivity and redirecting effort into specialist manufacturing and high value-added service industries must be a better answer.
Immigration raises the size of the economy but not, crucially, GDP per head. Those who lose out because of immigration–typically, the unskilled–transfer wealth to those who gain because of it–typically businesses and employers and as the poor get poorer, the rich get richer. In addition, there is much evidence to suggest that whilst overall immigrants may contribute as much to a nation’s GDP as they take from it, the contribution is very unbalanced. A small number of highly-successful individuals make large net contributions whilst a large number of individuals do not. Statistics show that using certain basic criteria such as education and grasp of language, we can be fairly accurate in predicting into which category any individual would fall. Why then, do we not use these criteria when entry is considered?
Turning to humanitarian matters we must consider asylum. We must, with other developed and enlightened nations, play our part in helping those who flee persecution but it has been estimated by both the courts who examine the requests and by the current Government that the vast majority of asylum seekers – as many as ninety percent – are economically motivated. That makes a mockery of the whole process and threatens to turn public opinion against all cases, genuine or not. We need to investigate ways–and involve all political parties in doing this–to shape asylum policy so that those whose motivation is primarily economic can be weeded out of the process quicker and at less cost to our country. We should also ensure that asylum seekers are processed in the country in which they first land and look to all of our so-called EU partners to contribute into a fund which pays for the costs of administration, validation and resettlement. EU countries should pay into this fund in proportion to their population but draw from the fund in proportion to the number of applications they process and the number of asylum seekers that settle there.
Whilst emigration may certainly be in the interest of those individuals who are educated enough and have the necessary economic resources to leave, it is hardly likely to enrich those left behind and their nations. Surely less-developed countries need to nurture and develop stable middle classes, people who are educated, pay taxes and administer and manage private enterprises and public services? If we were to take all applicants from certain countries we would find that a very small percentage of the population was better off for having left but those left behind–the vast majority–were substantially worse off. Free and fair trade rather than aid would help create a sustainable future in those countries far quicker than the emigration of their best and the brightest? Encouraging economic production and investment with the resulting higher standards of living and prosperity would make everyone–those that might have wanted to leave and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t–better off.
Whilst we colonised and developed many parts of the world, most of our former colonies have been independent for decades. The largest Commonwealth territory, India, took its independence over fifty years ago. Almost no one working in this country today was working and voting then. We have moved on, they have too. Now is the time to look forward, not back.
The UK today has reasonably generous policies regarding the immigration of relatives of citizens, so-called chain migration. Why? On what grounds should a mother, father, brother or cousin be admitted? Surely there should be a level playing field and–excepting perhaps spouses and children–family members should be evaluated in just the same way others are: for their ability to contribute towards our economy, for the skills they possess, for the language that they speak. By preferring to admit a citizen’s relations are we not restricting the entrance of others more deserving or needy?
The immigration pressure caused by severe economic imbalance is surely a wake-up call for us to take the plight of the developing world more seriously? We and other western countries could surely make a big start by opening up and encouraging free and fair trade with producers and consumers in the Third World. Instead, we prop up the Common Agricultural Policy which allows inefficient European farmers to continue selling foodstuffs that could be better produced elsewhere whilst at the same time dumping our heavily subsidized overproduction over there.
Surely it is time to talk rationally and reasonably about immigration, to set targets and policies and shout down those who slur and sling racist words around. Surely we must see that immigration is inextricably linked to other political issues: the UK is already densely populated, we do not need more unskilled labour, taking skilled workers away from other countries helps us but may not help the country they left behind. Surely it is a time for agencies and politicians to set targets and rules, rules which can be changed rather than continuing to wander through mist and under the grey clouds of uncertainty without an economic or moral compass?