Another million Eastern European immigrants? Let them in!

The UK government’s proposed restrictions on immigration from the new EU states are motivated by mean-spirited NIMBYism.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

Over the past five years, panics about immigration and asylum were a speciality of cranky tabloids like the Daily Mail and Daily Express. They ran numerous scare stories about immigrants, alongside conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death and the UK’s alleged looming ‘pensions crisis’. Outside of the tabloid editors’ world, there was little real anti-immigration sentiment. During last year’s General Election, for example, then Conservative Party leader Michael Howard failed to boost his electoral appeal by playing the ‘immigration card’ – an issue the Conservatives might once have won elections on.

In recent weeks, however, the immigration issue has taken a worrying turn. Whether from liberal commentators, New Labour government ministers or ‘compassionate conservative’ David Cameron, there has been a growing clamour to curb immigration from states in Eastern European. Figures released by the Home Office yesterday revealed that 447,000 young, single Eastern Europeans have come to Britain looking for work over the past two years (1). For Little Englanders and NIMBYists, such figures are proof that Britain’s immigration system is a shambles. Predictably, many of them are now demanding tighter controls.

Despite the fact that Eastern European workers are filling vital gaps in the labour market – including in factories, hospitality, catering and food processing – the government is planning to block open access for Romanians and Bulgarians when those two countries join the European Union next year. Ruth Kelly, the UK communities secretary, said this week that there needs to be a ‘mature immigration debate’ (2). What that probably means is back-slapping Britain’s ‘cultural diversity’ while devising new ways to prevent ambitious economic migrants from getting here.

The case for an open-door policy should be central to any meaningful discussion of immigration. People from Poland to Peru, Estonia to Ethiopia, should be allowed to come and live and work in Britain as they see fit. What is wrong with people moving around the globe in search of work and a better quality of life? Draconian controls on human movement are not only an affront to individual freedom and liberty; they also popularise dangerous Malthusian notions that society’s problems are caused by there being ‘too many people’.

For traditional right-wingers, this ‘too many people’ line had a special appeal, because it detracted from the limitations of the market as a mechanism for organising society. Influxes of new immigrants also haunt the conservative mindset because they supposedly disrupt the continuity and customs of an indigenous nation, as claimed by Margaret Thatcher in her infamous ‘swamping’ speech in 1979.

Before and since then, however, the right preferred to flatter itself that its ‘tough’ stance on immigration is somehow a sign of muscular political conviction and strength. It isn’t. Obsessively believing that reducing the number of immigrants would magically solve society’s problems is lazy wishful thinking and spineless, too. It shows a distinct lack of political imagination to believe that society can’t be organised adequately to meet any number of people’s needs. A ‘make do and mend’ approach to the resources available to humanity, coupled with a yokel-style outlook that says ‘you’re not from around these here parts….’, hardly makes for a scintillating vision for the twenty-first century.

Today, the immigration issue is no longer the trump card that it used to be for conservatives. Since the late Fifties, British immigration laws were specifically designed to keep non-whites out of the country. Throughout much of the Seventies and Eighties, too, the restricting of immigration was a code for ‘keeping Britain white’ used by the main political parties. Today, however, things are rather different.

Since official ‘anti-racism’ is now a key plank of the political consensus, mainstream politicians can’t appear to be overly enthusiastic about Britain’s restrictive immigration policies. This is why both Michael Howard, in last year’s General Election, and home secretary John Reid have to say all of the time that ‘it’s not racist to discuss or curb immigration’. For them, it is perhaps good fortune that most Eastern European migrants are white. It allows them to continue banging the anti-immigrant drum without appearing like fans of Jim Davidson.

Thus, the newly announced restrictions on the movement of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria are paraded in the media to show that this is about ‘numbers, not ethnic nationalities’. Such a move also acts as a retrospective rebuttal against ‘the freedoms allowed to workers from Poland when it joined the EU in 2004’ (3). Indeed, over the past few months Poles and other Eastern Europeans have occasionally received a similar kind of treatment in the press as black and Asian immigrants did in the Seventies: there have been stories about Poles stealing jobs, ‘spitting in public’, and apparently having ‘gangsterish’ tendencies.

Yet the real experience of Polish migration is that not only has it been beneficial to the British economy – it also serves as a model for how an open-door policy could work. Young Polish workers seeking to earn money can freely move here and then return home when their temporary contracts are up or when they’ve earned enough cash to buy some property in Poland. Immigration controls against them would deny this kind of flexibility, because it would demand, as it did with postwar migrants to the UK, that they either become British citizens or stay permanently excluded.

For some liberal commentators, all of this flexibility of movement simply won’t do. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee argues that to support economic migration is to be a fellow traveller of US neocons and a traitor to the indigenous British working class. ‘Near-full employment should mean pay rises – but cheap imported labour helps keep it low’, she argues. To give this view a seemingly radical gloss, she argues that ‘the rich prosper: restaurants, cleaners and all other services are cheaper because wages are low.’ She concludes that the ‘10-year unbroken burst of growth’ and a decrease ‘in pay inflation’ are a consequence of ‘cheap imported labour’ (4). Toynbee’s economic observations on growth and pay may be true, but this has less to do with economic migrants and more to do with the political defeat of the working class. With the demise of collective strategies to improve wages and conditions, employers have a freer hand to increase the rate of exploitation regardless of the arrival of ‘cheap imported labour’.

In a mealy-mouthed way, Toynbee and others are really arguing that indigenous British workers should have a privileged position in the British labour market and that the best way to guarantee British jobs and improve wages is to tighten immigration controls further. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called such an outlook ‘Social-Chauvinism’, meaning socialists who support their own nation’s interests over and above those of another nation. He argued that, because workers in all nations are subordinated to capital, there is a common interest between them that transcends national boundaries. Calls to protect one section of the international workforce against another undermines solidarity and weakens the cause of progressive politics.

Today’s narrow-minded argument that the arrival of economic migrants punishes British workers has been made many times by the Labour left over the past 50 years or more. Coincidently enough, back in 1947 the Trades Union Congress argued for restricting the employment of Eastern European immigrants in jobs for which British workers were not available (5). In the Seventies, when Britain’s economy was in turmoil as unemployment spiralled and living standards rapidly plummeted, the TUC firstly called for import controls on commodities and then immigration controls on workers, in the name of saving British jobs at the expense of those abroad.

Today, demanding the abolition of immigration controls can also expose the reactionary character of what passes for radicalism. Like the Labour left, environmentalists have long been hostile to an open-door policy because they believe that population increases are not ‘sustainable’. However, the fact that millions of people around the world are desperately seeking to live and work in industrialised countries demonstrates why we need more development, not less; more industrialisation in the Third World rather than calls for ‘sustainable development’ to ‘save the planet’, as favoured by today’s greens and NGOs.

More broadly, today’s new anti-immigration sentiment among the political class, sections of the media, liberals, greens and the left is underpinned by the politics of fear. Scare stories about drugs and prostitute trafficking, criminal gangs and terrorism follow hot on the heels of claims about ‘too many immigrants’. So the Conservative Party’s argument against migrants coming from Bulgaria and Romania is that Britain would be letting in ‘undesirables’. Drawing up the bridges today reflects a desire to hide away from the world.

Whatever arguments are used to justify them, the truth is that immigration controls are a disgrace and a menace to freedom, liberty and prosperity. That half-a-million Eastern Europeans have passed through Britain to live and work is good news for them, and us. Apparently, a million-strong ‘Romanian invasion’ is heading this way, too. Bring ’em all in, I say.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

(1) Guardian, 23 August 2006

(2) Guardian, 22 August 2006

(3) Guardian, 22 August 2006

(4) ‘Immigration is now making the rich richer and the poor poorer’, Polly Toynbee, Guardian, 11 August 2006

(5) CH Pollitt, Looking Ahead, London, 1947, p72

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Topics Politics