The use and abuse of immigrants

The response to the UK census shows how the chattering class exhibits its decency through being shallowly pro-immigrant.

Data from the 2011 census for England and Wales was published last week. It revealed that 7.5million people were born outside of the UK. The census revealed that there have been significant changes to the ethnic composition of the country. Commentators pointed out that the number of ‘non-white’ Britons was up from nine per cent to 16 per cent since 2001, and in London, those who describe themselves as ‘white British’ are now in a minority. UK prime minister David Cameron used the figures to lambast previous Labour governments for allowing mass immigration from new member countries of the EU.

For right-wingers, such statistics are proof that the Labour Party has cynically encouraged immigration as a way of guaranteeing votes in future elections. They argue that Labour adopted a quasi open-door policy for short-term electoral gain without thinking through the long-term consequences for the nation’s infrastructure and public services.

It is true that the Labour Party had previously used mass immigration for social-engineering purposes, but this went further than narrow electoral concerns. Rather, for the new elites, demonstrating a smug ‘tolerance’ for newly arrived immigrants, and championing ethnic cultures and identities as a way of revitalising the UK, became a marker of their superiority. In one fell swoop, immigration was used to point the finger at both patrician conservative elites as well as the allegedly racist white working class. It became one of the institutionalised ways through which these isles were re-branded from Old Britain (nationalistic and imperial with identities predominantly based on class) to New Britain (globalised and multiethnic with identities predominantly based on culture).

In the run-up to the 2010 General Election, Brendan O’Neill outlined the thinking behind New Labour’s drive towards mass immigration. Alongside trumpeting the usual ‘economic benefits’ of immigration, New Labour also championed the ‘social benefits’, arguing that immigration would make Britain a ‘truly multicultural society’. In the absence of core British political and moral values, New Labour could build Britain around the idea of the immigrant. Thus a crisis of political vision was given a positive-sounding gloss: ours is now a nation of forever-changing values. But the consequence of this strategy was to racialise everyday life and contribute enormously to the contemporary distrust of mainstream parliamentary politics. And instead of encouraging a tolerant, pluralistic and open-minded society, the politicisation of immigration has been used to make Britain a far less free society.

As O’Neill pointed out, the ‘pro-immigration’ stance allows the contemporary elite to distance itself from the traditional elites of the past and from the working classes of today; that is, from the old order and from the new masses. For decades, the British elite used the politics of racism as a way of keeping the working classes in their place, ratcheting up immigration fears and racial tensions in an effort to win native workers’ loyalty. Now, it uses the official politics of ‘anti-racism’ and ‘pro-immigration’ to do a similar job, but with more authoritarian consequences. One of the most effective ways in which the working classes are policed today is through the monitoring of their allegedly problematic attitudes to immigration and of their failure to embrace the apparently superior cosmopolitan values of their rulers.

Some of the responses to the latest census figures show how central immigration and diversity are to the new elite imagination. One commentator, referencing the 2012 Olympics, argued that as Britain’s demography now reflected the multiethnic make-up of Team GB, the recent demographic changes could be seen as a ‘triumph’. In other words, diverse New Britain is morally virtuous compared with homogenous Old Britain; exotic immigrants are far superior to both the white plebs and stuck-up posh who live here. So where liberal commentators will routinely slate posh Etonians for being ‘out of touch’ and lambast poorer ‘chavs’ for being unhealthy and ignorant, they will applaud the newly arrived immigrant for the fact they’re neither posh nor prole.

Of course, the disdain for both the upper and working classes has long been an outlook of the squeezed middle classes. Today, this outlook finds expression through being virtuously pro-immigration. Such vacuous grandstanding has less to do with immigrants themselves and is more about middle-class self-flattery. One leftist commentator let this slip by arguing that ‘pretty white’ rural areas could be viewed as ‘unreal and, to be frank, lacking’. By contrast, journalists living in multi-ethnic London can be presented as the high-water mark of sophistication, toleration and decency – especially compared with those blinkered white plebs who live out in Essex or Newcastle.

In truth, those who make a song and dance of skin colour and diversity as positives are merely the flipside of old-fashioned racists who view these things as negatives. Nobody seems willing to suggest that it would be far better to live in a colour-blind society rather than one that tiresomely obsesses over what people look like or what their backgrounds are. Multiethnic regional areas should not be seen as automatically ‘good’ in the same way that white small towns are not automatically dodgy. It is deeply conservative to elevate fixed characteristics (appearances) and heritage (ethnicity) over what a person is capable of achieving. During the 2012 Olympics, for instance, liberal commentators were far more animated by Mo Farah’s and Jessica Ennis’s skin colours and backgrounds than they were by their athletic brilliance. The liberal response to the 2011 Census continues in this utterly reactionary way.

The politicisation of ethnic identities, particularly against the white working class, also exposes how bogus such diversity claims are. The toleration of cultural and political diversity is very important because it prevents dull conformity and encourages debate. But toleration and diversity are meaningless without the allowance of open and free judgements. Radicals today often dismiss the idea of judgement as a cover for white privilege. In fact, it is designed to encourage the broadest possible debate. For genuine liberals, a marketplace of cultural practices is not craven moral relativism but the facilitating of a truly universal culture. In Britain, diversity means the opposite of its original liberal intentions. It has become an unquestionable dogma designed to enforce dull conformity and close down any debate about what type of society we want to live in.

Until recently, the radical argument for an open-door policy on immigration was based on universal values, not the celebration of difference. It was the recognition that free-willing individuals have a natural right to move and live where they see fit. It was also based on a commonality of sectional interests, whereby working people of different nations were seen as sharing the same common fight and aspiration for better living standards. Where immigration controls and old-fashioned racism were always designed to weaken such class solidarities, the new elites’ pro-immigration stance does the same job but with more intrusive policing measures.

The response to the 2011 census shows how important it is to challenge the politicisation of a shallow, opportunistic pro-immigrant stance while still arguing for full freedom of movement. Above all else, it means highlighting the reactionary and authoritarian character of ‘diversity’ policies while advocating a full and open debate on immigration. Without that, the new ‘pro-immigration’ lobby will continue to champion and institutionalise poisonous divisions across society.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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