One million new foreign workers? Three cheers!

Down with the ‘cohesion killjoys’ who claim that mass immigration to Britain is causing social breakdown and environmental pollution.

The proper response to revelations that more than half of the new jobs created by the New Labour government since it came to power in 1997 have gone to foreign workers should be: so what?

When government ministers said on Monday that 800,000, or 30 per cent, of the 2.7million jobs they created were taken by migrant workers, there were shrill cries about the British man on the street being ‘sold out’ to Johnny Foreigner. When ministers revised the figures the following day, and said that out of 2.1million new jobs, not 2.7million, 1.1million had been filled by immigrants – that is, 52 per cent of all new jobs have gone to foreigners – the cries became shriller still. Apparently the arrival of so many non-British job-hunters is a ‘shambles’, a ‘disgrace’, and a threat to ‘social cohesion’ (1).

No it isn’t. The swift revising of the figures might show that the New Labour government is stacked with incompetent bureaucrats who can’t count. But the figures also show that mass immigration into Britain is not a problem. The very fact that 1.1million foreigners (not to mention thousands of ‘illegals’) have started work here since 1997, and no one noticed until the government did a bad job of releasing the figures, shows that a million-plus immigrants are not a threat to social cohesion, social stability or social anything else. Britain is coping just fine with a million foreign workers, and we could probably take a million more.

Not for the first time, Brits have got into a complete spin over immigration this past week. First we had the handwringing over the government’s foreign-worker figures. Then the Institute of Community Cohesion published a report that said an ‘influx’ of immigrants is putting pressure on public services, especially schools, hospitals, housing, transport and child protection services. The Local Government Association, backed by Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, is calling for a special £250million-a-year fund to help regions that are ‘struggling to cope with unexpected influxes of migrants’ (2). Newspaper editorials say we can no longer deny ‘the impact of rapid immigration on social cohesion’ (3).

In this fevered discussion, internal British problems – badly developed public services, a lack of investment in road- and house-building, a deep uncertainty about what it means to be British today – are being projected on to immigrants. The sound and fury about immigration has very little to do with real immigrants living, working and socialising in our cities. Rather, a whole host of social anxieties are being filtered through ‘the immigration issue’.

So the internal disorganisation and incoherence of Britain’s public services are reinterpreted as problems created by external pressure from ‘outsiders’. In truth, it is the government’s mismanagement of areas such as health provision and education – which are both continually being ‘revolutionised’ and politicised to serve New Labour’s petty interventionist agenda – which is causing a crisis in public service provision. The arrival of a million new foreign workers represents only a 1.7 per cent rise in the British population, and most of them, especially the thousands of fit and able young men from Eastern Europe, are healthy and child-free when they arrive in Britain, and thus are unlikely to be a burden on the health or education sectors (4).

Many claim that our million foreign workers are causing overcrowding. David Cameron, leader of the UK Conservative Party, says mass immigration is causing a ‘demographic crisis’. One newspaper columnist argues that ‘immigration is not a racial problem, it is a problem of numbers’: apparently all those workers arriving on our shores are causing ‘terrible overcrowding’, giving rise to clogged-up roads and housing shortages (5). Again, immigrants are being blamed for what are in fact social and political failings. It is underinvestment in infrastructure that leads to scarcity of good-quality housing and decent roads: the Labour government has singularly failed to build the millions of new homes that Britain needs, and its proposed solution to jammed highways is to introduce road tolls rather than build new roads (6).

Despite what the immigrant scaremongers claim – both the traditional right-leaning immigration sceptics and the new green critics of the ‘carbon footprint’ caused by mass immigration – Britain is not overcrowded. The most recent figures show that 45.96 per cent of Britain’s land is used for intensive agriculture, 29.78 per cent of it is semi-natural, 11.91 per cent of it is woodland, and only around 8 per cent of it is ‘settled’ – that is, built environment (7). There is plenty of space in which to build new towns and cities, both for immigrant workers and the native population. Maybe the thousands of Romanians, Bulgarians and Lithuanians currently working on building sites in London and other cities could later be redeployed to build homes, schools and hospitals on Britain’s vast swathes of unsettled land.

In the discussion of public services, the focus on immigrants is a way of avoiding the core issue: the lack of public vision in Britain today, and the inability of our leaders to conceive of ‘the social good’, much less to make it a reality through meaningful investment. Likewise, claims that immigrants pose a threat to ‘social cohesion’ are underpinned, not by any evidence that immigrants are clashing with native Brits, but rather by a powerful crisis of identity within Britain itself. In the past week commentators have written about the ‘social costs’ of mass immigration, and how it is undermining ‘cultural identity’ (8). They look upon immigrants as an invasion of difference that threatens British values. In truth, there has been an internal fragmentation of identity in the UK over the past decade: see the recent feverish and directionless debates about how we might define British values, and what it means to be a British citizen. This internal corrosion is being explained away as a problem imported by immigrants from overseas.

Here, the use of the phrase ‘social cohesion’ is striking. Since mass immigration over the past 10 years has not led to social instability (there has been no crime wave or rioting), politicians and commentators instead talk vaguely about the undermining of ‘social cohesion’. ‘Cohesion’ refers to the condition of cohering things together, literally ‘the force with which the molecules of a body cleave together’ (9). It is the political and cultural elites’ sense that there is no overriding force that might cohere British citizens and immigrants together today that leads them to fret about this new mysterious category of ‘social cohesion’. This phrase itself exposes that the problem is not the arrival of foreign bodies, but the absence of a force that might tie them in to the bigger body of British society, the absence of any clear shared values or common British interest.

The consensus on immigrants today seems to be that, yes, they’re good for the economy, but they are potentially bad for society (10). What is missing in this debate is any notion of freedom. It is not enough to say that migrants are ‘good for the economy’, as many pro-immigration activists do, and it is disingenuous and downright cowardly to claim that immigrants are the cause of Britain’s crisis of identity. Immigration ought to be defended on the basis of upholding absolute freedom of movement – on the grounds that men and women around the world are self-determining agents who ought to be free to traverse the globe and settle and work wherever they please. Immigrants are not merely useful economic tools; nor are they an unknowable border-crossing threat to national stability. They are individuals who use their tenacity and energy to travel long distances (sometimes having to break the law in the process), learn new languages, find work and integrate into new and different societies. Such expressions of human agency and desire are a good in themselves, and ought to be rigorously defended against the miserabilists and reductionists who see migration simply as a form of pollution or as a narrow economic benefit.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi took a look at David Cameron’s demographic determinism, said population control is a really bad idea, and asked whether falling birth rates really spell the end of Europe. Brendan O’Neill said ‘the immigration issue’ covered up the political class’ fear of the white working class. Neil Davenport said there should be no limit on immigration from Eastern Europe and asked why we in the UK are lunatics about asylum. Or read more at spiked issue immigration.

(1) The left can no longer afford to bury the migration debate, Guardian, 31 October 2007

(2) Councils urge more migrant funds, BBC News, 1 November 2007

(3) The left can no longer afford to bury the migration debate, Guardian, 31 October 2007

(4) See BNP’s green disguise, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 23 August 2007

(5) A country wrecked by unlimited immigration, Daily Telegraph, 27 October 2007 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opinion/main.jhtml?xml=/opinion/2007/10/27/do2701.xml
(6) See BNP’s green disguise, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, http://www.newstatesman.com/200708230012

(7) See BNP’s green disguise, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 23 August 2007

(8) The left can no longer afford to bury the migration debate, Guardian, 31 October 2007

(9) Oxford English Dictionary

(10) The left can no longer afford to bury the migration debate, Guardian, 31 October 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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