Immigration: whose line is it anyway?

James Evans examines public opinion towards immigration.

Immigration has become a powerful word in politics. UKIP’s message about getting out of Europe and controlling our own borders has found favour with many voters. The Conservatives are consistently highlighting their pledge to hold a referendum on EU membership in 2017; also featuring prominently in David Cameron’s Party Conference speech was a reminder that ‘Abu Qutada had his very own May Day this year’. The concept of immigration forms a sort of political ‘best fit’ encompassing the wider, disparate issues of UK border and residency controls. Much of the debate is led by opinion rather than by fact; what is certain is that the general public draw the line on these issues somewhere to the right of mainstream politics. The proof that politicians understand this is in the lack of a strong left-wing line from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to counteract their opponents’ exclusionary line.

Much of the debate is led by opinion rather than by fact.

Notwithstanding this strategic silence, there is another way to draw the line, a rational argument whose supporters are gradually becoming better-informed and more vocal. On 5th November, the Guardian newspaper highlighted the results of a new study led by Professor Christopher Dustmann and Dr Tommaso Frattini at University College London’s Migration Research Unit. According to their work, migrants in general, and European Economic Area (EEA) migrants in particular, have made a very significant net contribution to the UK economy. Those from the EEA have in fact paid about 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits, a huge net gain for UK PLC! In these austere economic times, the left-wing line might go, we cannot afford in social or economic terms to draw the line under Britain’s membership of the EU…

Migrants in general, and European Economic Area (EEA) migrants in particular, have made a very significant net contribution to the UK economy.

My biggest concern about the Right’s red line on immigration, however, is that it may miss the most important point. Many people’s concerns are about the effect of legal immigration which has already happened. No mainstream politician is suggesting that naturalised settlers or others who already have rights of residency in the UK can or should be sent ‘home’. But there is a line to be drawn in relation to residents’ obligations to integrate with the pre-existing UK population. For example, the failure of a significant number of residents to learn to speak and read English should not simply be indulged by the state. This is not to advocate denying their right to their ancestral culture. It is simply to stipulate that if they live in the UK, they must learn to speak English so that they can play a full part in the life of the nation that they have joined. The involvement of important public figures like Boris Johnson in a campaign to support English learning in ethnically diverse London is to be applauded. Without this opportunity, the isolation or ghettoisation of such people and communities, whether through their own actions or those of the state, may follow. This must not happen. That’s where I draw the line.

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