Lunatics about asylum

Why are both sides of Britain's immigration debate scaremongering about our allegedly overpopulated island?

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

The UK Conservative Party is once again whipping up fear and loathing over immigration. Last week, Conservative Party HQ released data it had come across, which showed that a total of 1,020,510 people received British citizenship over the past decade. The data also showed that where in 1996, the year before Labour came to power, 43,070 applications for citizenship were granted, by 2007 the annual figure had climbed to 154,095 (1). For muck-racking Tories, this is proof that ‘the government must tighten border controls’, as if Britain actually operated an open-door policy on immigration anyway. Are these figures really ‘extraordinary’, as Damian Green, the Conservative shadow immigration minister, claimed?

Firstly, given that the British population stands at around 65million, granting UK citizenship to 100,000 people a year is nothing to be shocked about. This is why the goons at Conservative Party HQ had to crank up the figure by referring to the number of new citizens over the course of a decade, in order to give an impression that immigration is ‘out of control’. In truth, as I have argued previously on spiked, immigrants have been vital in plugging labour shortage gaps in key sections of the UK economy. Far from being a burden on the nation, they have played a pivotal role in contributing to Britain’s economic wellbeing. Damian Green says ‘we need to be absolutely sure that each one is going to be someone who wants to play a positive role in this country’; the figures showing how many immigrants work or set up businesses surely speak for themselves.

On one level, this latest immigration panic sounds like a blast from the Conservative Party’s more robustly nationalistic past. Certainly, as Conservative leader David Cameron struggles to devise a new and hip form of Social Conservatism, one could be forgiven for thinking that his party HQ has lamely resorted to the glory days of Thatcher’s notorious ‘swamping’ speech against immigrants in 1979 in order to keep the party faithful on board. But look again. There are no thundering declarations that British identity is being diluted by an influx of immigrants, just a rather meek request that newcomers play a ‘positive role’. Even on its traditional, anti-immigration stomping ground, the Conservative Party seems to lack the confidence or belief to assert a hard argument.

It probably understands, perhaps more than most, that the indigenous British population does not have a big problem with immigrants coming into the country. After all, anti-immigrant sentiments in the 1970s and 1980s relied upon ‘Britain-is-best’ tub-thumping which targeted foreigners as inferior, a threat to our way of life and economic security, and therefore open game. At a time when the political elites bemoan Britain’s imperial past, and seem constantly on the lookout for new ways to display national self-loathing, it is hard to see how such anti-foreigner sentiment could flourish now.

Nevertheless, Green’s comments are reactionary and reprehensible for another reason: they are another unwelcome addition to the numbers game currently being played out by the overpopulation lobby. It is notable that rather than talk about a decline in traditions and national values, as Conservatives used to do when it came to immigration, Green instinctively understands that bandying around a titanic population figure is enough to hit the headlines and make people worry. Complaining that there are too many people, rather than focusing on the ‘wrong kind of people’, has become the new acceptable face of anti-immigration sentiments. In this respect, the Conservatives are simply adapting their old line on immigration so that it dovetails with the views of environmentalists and population scaremongers.

Ironically, the only people more reactionary than Green and the Conservatives on the issue of immigration are their opponents. Reacting to Green’s statement, Keith Best, chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service, said about immigrants: ‘These people have actively sought British citizenship because they want to make a contribution to the UK. I am not sure how many people born in this country have the same commitment.… We are now turning immigrants into better citizens than people born with a British passport.’ (2) Poisonous comments such as these, where immigrants are welcomed because they apparently make better citizens than the apparently unthinking indigenous population, show how much today’s political elite and campaign groups hold the mass of UK citizens in contempt. Not showing enough ‘commitment’ to the UK? Not being very good citizens? What does this mean today? Probably that we are not doing enough exercise or eating the right kind of foods – or perhaps we are refusing to recycle our household garbage on a daily basis.

It’s safe to presume that Keith Best probably isn’t thinking about himself, or New Labour supporters in Hampstead, when he talks about British people who have failed at being citizens. Rather, he’s probably thinking of the same constituency that the Socialist Workers Party’s duff comedian and commentator Mark Steel had in mind when he also recently ranted against ‘current British passport holders’. ‘A group of eight blokes from Kent had travelled to France for the day to get paralytic, and were burping their way through the departure lounge… I thought: “These blokes must agree the country is full up. So why don’t we suggest they sod off back to France to be banged up in Sangatte, and in their place we take eight asylum-seekers, who will be more pleasant all round and sure to ease the overcrowding as they’ll be a lot skinnier than these fat twats?”’ (3)

It makes you wonder what brand of ‘revolutionary socialism’ Steel subscribes to when he shows even more fear and loathing of the masses than does the New Labour government. Critics of the anti-immigration lobby disgracefully use immigrants as a prop to lash out against the real and imagined binge-drinking, burger-munching hordes of Britain. This is a recipe for new kinds of division: between immigrants who are looked upon with pity and described as deserving, and indigenous populations who are seen as ungrateful, feckless, unwelcome.

Such comments are even less flattering about immigrants and asylum seekers. Best’s claim that immigrants make better citizens than people born with a British passport, and Steel’s horribly patronising argument that immigrants are ‘more pleasant all round’, is code for saying that they will be less demanding, less trouble, and more compliant than bloody-minded proles. Perhaps what Best, Steel and others have in mind is that we should grant asylum seekers British citizenship for being ‘good little coolies’ rather than active and potentially demanding citizens. From the time of British colonial rule in India, there has long been this sentiment that the supposedly passive Asian or African makes a more preferable and dignified subject than the rowdy urban proletariat. The new critics of the anti-immigration lobby are simply rehearsing these old prejudices in a new form.

The overpopulation/overcrowding complainers on immigration and their supposed progressive critics are both reactionary to the core. A plague on both their houses, I say. While the former fuel nefarious ideas that ‘there are too many people’ in the country, the latter stokes prejudices that those already here should somehow be gotten rid of. In truth, the dangerous ideas of both these camps really should be deported.

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

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild asked Whose Britain is it anyway?. James Heartfield argued that immigration is not the problem when it comes to housing policy. Nathalie Rothschild asked, ‘Who’s afraid of…’ the BNP, human trafficking and foreign doctors. Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

(1) ‘New UK citizen every five minutes’, Guardian, 12 July 2007

(2) ‘New UK citizen every five minutes’, Guardian, 12 July 2007

(3) ‘There is another way of dealing with immigration’ by Mark Steel, Independent, 27 June 2002

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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