The phoney border war over immigration

The fallout from the Queen’s Speech confirms that today neither right nor left views immigrants as real, breathing human beings.

Brendan O'Neill
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The fuss that followed yesterday’s Queen’s Speech reveals what a weird turn the debate about immigration has taken. In the past, the clash over migrants’ rights tended to pit border-fortifying nationalistic types against left-leaners who believed in the right of foreigners to move around the globe and work and live in various places. Today, if the reaction to PM David Cameron’s proposed new immigration measures is anything to go by, there’s little more than a pseudo-spat over immigration, with hamstrung anti-immigrant politicians on one side and a ‘pro-immigration’ lobby that is increasingly elitist on the other. What’s most striking is how neither side treats immigrants as actual human beings, the anti-immigrant side treating them as spectres of destabilisation and the pro-immigrant lot treating them as the ciphers for a new, post-borders, shallowly cosmopolitan political dawn.

Cameron’s proposals, ironically unveiled by our German-descended queen, led to outraged headlines about how he was pandering to xenophobic attitudes and taking Britain back to the bad old days of immigrant-bashing. In truth, the most remarkable thing about his plans is how chaotic they are, and also how much they concede in terms of the security of Britain’s borders. Cameron is proposing effectively to outsource authority over immigration to various non-state actors. Landlords will be charged with checking the immigration status of their tenants, and will face fines if they let their properties to illegal migrants. Employers will have to check passports and papers or risk getting a severe slap on the wrists for ‘hiring illegal workers’. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will have to ensure that only legit immigrants get driving licences.

Some have depicted these measures as supremely anti-foreigner, even Orwellian, potentially creating a nation of curtain-twitching snitches checking up on the ‘status’ of everyone with a funny accent. It is true that Cameron’s ideas will likely intensify the suspicious public climate already fostered by CCTV cameras, ASBOs, smoking-ban hotlines and a host of other low-level citizen-on-citizen policing introduced in recent years. But there’s another, more important way to interpret his measures: as a sign of how incapable the modern British political class feels of exercising meaningful control over its borders or over the number of immigrants that arrive, certainly from Europe. Indeed, in turning everyday folk into papers-checkers, Cameron and Co. are effectively admitting to defeat on the border question itself, on the actual immigrant question, and are really saying: ‘We can’t stop all these people from coming here, but we can get some native Brits to check they’re legit.’

Looking at the government’s recent statements and actions on immigration, you get the distinct impression that it just doesn’t know what to do about this alleged problem, or even how big the alleged problem is. So for the past two months, officials have made spasmodic, conflicting statements about how many Romanians and Bulgarians will come here next year when EU immigration rules are relaxed. Eric Pickles said it will be a lot, and will ‘cause problems’, but refused to give an exact number. Another Tory, perhaps using a crystal ball, predicted 425,000 will turn up. Other officials say they just ‘don’t know’. Meanwhile, home secretary Theresa May recently announced the abolition of the Borders Agency and said her office will assume direct control over Britain’s borders in an effort to get this whole Euro-immigration thing under some kind of control. Even for saying that she was stingingly rebuked – one newspaper editorial chastised her for failing to realise that borders are ‘not eternally fixed’, especially in this era of ‘successful multiculturalism’.

It is the chaos of British officialdom’s immigration policies that is most striking. In essence, border control today is seen as impossible or as undesirable in this relativistic, post-nationalism age of cross-border cooperation and supranational institutions like the European Union. Far from Cameron’s proposals speaking to a revival of old-school Tory nationalism, his government’s confusions over immigration, over the very question of who, if anyone, controls Britain’s borders, reveal how far British nationalism has been emptied of meaning and content. The attempt to turn every Tom, Dick and Harry into a passport-checker is actually to accept the inevitability of mass immigration and the porousness of British borders, and it speaks to the incapacity of modern rulers, even Tory ones, to assert national or territorial interests in the face of any thing or force they might previously have described as ‘Other’. It is this confused post-nationalism that is leading to attacks on immigrants today: the government is carrying out occasional strikes against easy targets – like Asians studying in Britain or ‘illegals’ looking for help in an A&E department – in a desperate bid to demonstrate and really feel like it still has some element of control over the foreigner question.

There has been a strange shift on the other side, too. Today, those who pose as ‘pro-immigration’ seem less interested in defending the freedom of movement of real, living migrants than in attacking the backward attitudes and traditionalism of those natives who raise any questions about immigration. So their immediate response to Cameron’s proposals yesterday was to fret over how certain sections of the population would react. One Cameron-basher feared the Queen’s Speech would unleash the ‘ill-informed prejudices’ of a certain ‘section of the electorate’, those ‘old, pessimistic and predominantly male voters frightened… at a time of immense change amid economic storms’. Others accuse Cameron of ‘pandering to kneejerk xenophobia’. In short, the problem isn’t Cameron’s own ideology per se; it’s those ‘old’, probably racist voters he is foolishly playing to. The belief that questioning immigration is not only illiberal but actually irrational was summed up in one journalist’s description of the desire to ‘curb immigration’ as ‘the snake oil of our time’.

Again and again, supposedly pro-immigration writers and activists respond to proposed restrictions on immigration by fretting over how Them – old, dumb white folk – will respond. So recently, a European commissioner chastised Cameron’s government for potentially unleashing ‘kneejerk xenophobia’ with its statements on immigrants’ alleged ‘benefits tourism’. In March, the Council of Europe’s human-rights commissioner accused British officials of using ‘unacceptable rhetoric’ on immigration. Why do those who define themselves as pro-immigrant always focus on the potential response of the public to politicians’ allegedly inflammatory language, rather than, say, on the freedom of people to migrate around Europe and the globe as they see fit? Because being pro-immigration has also been completely emptied of its old meaning and content, and is now little more than a battering ram for changing allegedly problematic attitudes among states’ native populations, and for further spreading the anti-sovereignty, anti-borders ethos of institutions like the EU and its intellectual cheerleaders.

In the European context, the main impulse of the officials, bureaucrats and thinkers who depict themselves as pro-immigration is to further disorganise national sovereignty. For them, migrants are not individuals with needs, desires and autonomy, but rather the shock troops of EUphilia, who might make more real Brussels’ muddying of borders in modern Europe and the consigning of popular national sovereignty to the dustbin of history. As one EU theorist says, the people who have a problem with immigration – those old, fearful voters and the right-wing politicians they support – tend to have a ‘dogmatic adherence to the principle of national sovereignty’ and fail to realise that the EU is all about having ‘permeable, porous boundaries and… inclusive communities with flexible membership’ (1). That is, the reason anti-immigrant attitudes are bad is because they speak to an instinctive, apparently backward rejection of the EU project of dislodging national sovereignty and replacing it with new cross-border power structures. This is why even the most illiberal Brussels-based suits, who can’t so much as spell the word freedom and who would have a heart attack if they ever clapped eyes on an African immigrant landing on the shores of Italy or Spain, adopt a supposedly pro-immigration posture today: because that’s the surest, most PC-sounding way of pushing farther the dissolution of nationally derived democracy and outdated state sovereignty.

For these ‘pro-immigrants’, always attacking the snake-oil backwardness of ill-educated native voters, the key impulse is not to institute freedom of movement but rather to make Europe’s borders even more permeable as a means of strengthening the cross-border moral authority of post-national institutions like the EU and its offshoots. The end result is an entirely phoney cosmopolitianism, which far from uniting the peoples of Europe pitches border-defying Bulgarians against dumb, stuck-in-the-mud Brits and other outdated idiots. A properly liberal, cosmopolitan approach to modern Europe, which truly valued freedom of movement, would emphasise European people’s common interests, particularly the common interest of being morally autonomous, rather than slyly turning EU migrants into the unwitting underminers of apparently backward political outlooks and ways of life. It is entirely possible to celebrate the freedom to cross borders without demolishing democracy and sovereignty within those borders. Let’s start making that case.

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

(1) See Citizenship, Identity and Immigration in the European Union: Between Past and Future, Theodora Kostakopoulou, Manchester University Press, 2001

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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