The topic of immigration seems to permeate all political discussion these days. The everyman, we are constantly reminded, wants less immigration.We need autonomy from the EU in order to control our borders. Immigrants are stealing our jobs, living off benefits and terrorising the British people – literally and figuratively. Only the out-of-touch liberal elites can possibly tolerate the situation a moment longer.
The rhetoric is often harsh, and needlessly so. Reasonable discussion is avoided for fear of ‘defying’ public wishes, and the positives are therefore seldom aired.
Yet, this vilification of immigrants is not really a noble effort to give the public what they want.It is merely a smokescreen, a trick, designed to divert attention from government inaction on more significant issues. It is time it was recognised as such.
The Economic Impact of Immigration
A frequent argument used to support the need for greater immigration control is the pressure immigrants place on public services. In the UK, headlines tend to focus on the impact specifically on the NHS. Despite there being scant evidence that this is an issue – even taking into account ‘health tourists’ and non-permanent residents the impact is minimal – still this fear of the money-sucking immigrant is encouraged by those in power.
In fact, research demonstrates that immigrants are economically beneficial to the UK. For instance, since 2000, EU immigrants have contributed £20bn to the UK economy. UK nationals have cost the country £617bn over the same period. It is also worth noting that these immigrants, typically better educated than the average UK national, have saved the UK money in bringing their skills and services to the country, thus reducing the need for billions of pounds worth of extra education spending. For those worried about immigrants attracted to the UK primarily for its benefits system, it is important to note that they are 43% less likely to receive benefits or tax credits than UK nationals.
One commentator does point out that this highly positive contribution is partly down to a lower average age – meaning less reliance on public services – and that as these people age, their demands on services such as the NHS will increase. Nonetheless, they concede that the UK will still economically be better off in 50 years with the current levels of immigration, than if it was more limited.
The only real negative impact, in fact, is on British workers in unskilled and semi-skilled professions, such as care workers or shop assistants. However, this is so small – a 1% slip in wages over eight years – that it is virtually negligible.
Overall, it is evident that, economically, immigration is exceptionally beneficial for the UK. If the government wants to alleviate the negative effects on the low paid, it might want to turn its attention to issues such as the minimum wage, rather than scapegoating immigrants who actually help fund public services.
The Social Impact of Immigration
It might seem intuitive that immigration would be more likely to affect a country negatively in a social capacity, but again, this is not really the case. Impact is minimal, and deprivation is a better indicator of social division than immigration.
This, at least, is what a government advisory report finds, making their encouragement of anti-immigrant feeling ever more baffling. Social cohesion – defined by people’s perceptions of neighbourliness in their area, and their levels of trust in institutions such as the police – is not notably affected by immigration. Deprivation, by contrast, does correlate with low social cohesion.
It should be noted, however, that existing diversity is also a predictor of social division. This does complicate the picture somewhat, as it suggests that historic immigration has had a negative social impact on Britain, even if current immigration does not. Perhaps it is an indicator of changing attitudes: if immigrants are typically younger that the average Briton, perhaps those arriving today are happier to conform to ‘British values’ than their predecessors, and perhaps prejudices in Britain are slowly eroding too.
Finally, and crucially to those who truly feel threatened by the influx of new cultures, the report states that immigration has had a very limited effect on the shift in national identity (which now focuses on values and responsibilities rather than ancestry). If ‘Britishness’ is changing, it is not the fault of immigrants.
The Politics of Immigration
Despite all this, the UK has been left in a position where immigration not only dominated discussion before the EU referendum, but is now also reportedly the ‘primary concern’ of the Prime Minister in her Brexit negotiations.
Over the course of the referendum campaigns, the significance of immigration to voters grew, and this is surely no coincidence: particularly given that the issue was almost four times as important to ‘Leave’ voters. The Brexit campaigns especially gave undue weight to the issue: from Nigel Farage’s poster that was later likened to Nazi propaganda, to ‘Vote Leave‘ describing the current immigration system as “immoral and unfair” and threatening a spiralling loss of border control dictated by the whims of EU decision-makers.
If anything, however, this gross exaggeration of the ‘problem’ of immigration has only got worse. It is one thing to play on prejudices to win a vote – and a big thing at that – but it is quite another to continue to overlook the facts because reduced immigration is supposedly what people ‘want’, and will therefore make one more electable. Quite apart from the fact that it was thrust down the public’s throat during the campaign, no where near a majority of voters are even particularly concerned about immigration. The Ipsos MORI statistics (link above) show that overall, only 33% of voters rate immigration as important to them. This is not a majority, and certainly nowhere near enough people to warrant Parliament casually passing the Brexit Bill unamended, with a 494 to 122 majority, in the knowledge that May will prioritise immigration, meaning that Britain will be leaving the single market. Prior to the intense focus on the subject, the economy was the top concern for voters, something which seems altogether disregarded now.
All in all, this focus on immigration seems to be being used to cover up an altogether different problem: deprivation. Immigration is slightly affecting the wages of the lowest paid, but deprivation is a bigger cause of social division, and overall the influx of new people is incredibly beneficial. However, perhaps by playing on the discord caused by existing diversity, and even more so, just in giving disadvantaged people a target for their discontent, politicians are using immigration to hide the real culprit: themselves. And it works because they can then offer an easy solution: curbing immigration. It is altogether more hopeful than blaming governmental incompetence, when one has to wait years before a government can be ousted.
It is not even just the right who are to blame: Labour are complicit in the scam. In pandering to the populist anti-immigrant feeling instead of offering real arguments, they are allowing the Conservative party to avoid tackling inequality. And, in time, when easy answers create more problems than they solve, and when the poorest in society find themselves no better off in or out of the EU, their ire will turn, rightfully, onto the politicians too self-serving to care.