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When oh when will we ever be able to talk about immigration (sensibly)?

2 December 2013

4:16 PM

2 December 2013

4:16 PM

I do wish we were never allowed to speak about immigration. That seems the only way to prevent folk from spouting – and writing – rubbish on the subject. But of course there is no conspiracy intent on stifling discussion on immigration. Not even a liberal, metropolitan or elitist conspiracy. Sorry. You can say all the things you think you can’t say. And we know this because many, even most, of them are said all the time. So often, in fact, that they lack novelty.

And we also know that no-one really wants to have a conversation about immigration. Conversation would require some back and forth. It might even allow the possibility someone might change their mind. Just imagine that. A proper conversation doesn’t suppose the outcome before the evidence has been heard. It does not beg questions.

So we don’t have a conversation about immigration because almost all the people calling for a conversation agree with one another. Conversation is just another way of saying immigration should be restricted still further.

But of course no-one is ever allowed to say that.

Almost no-one, not even the relative handful of people truly in favour of open borders, claims there is no downside – or potential downside – to immigration. Most people acknowledge that there are circumstances or places in which it can cause some difficulties. It is not daft to think that population growth can sometimes, in some places, place additional stress on public services. Nor is it reprehensible to think that some immigrants are better placed to thrive in Britain than others or that some are less likely to assimilate or make a valuable contribution to life in this country.

But it is possible to note that – even, if you prefer, to concede that – and still conclude that the right to move anywhere within the European Union is one of the greatest expansions of human liberty we – that is, Europeans –  have enjoyed in recent decades. It is an achievement that should not be cast aside lightly, far less with great force.

Few people in Westminster seem to think this. Instead we endure the grubby, dispiriting spectacle of politicians competing to see who can seem tougher on immigration. Witness, for instance, Priti Patel writing at ConservativeHome today.

If we object to Romanians and Bulgarians having the right to come and work and live in this country then the proper moment to raise that objection would have been when they applied to join the EU in the first place.

But of course we did not object then because we – that is, all parties – accepted that Britain’s national interest has long been served by expanding EU membership. Perhaps this is a mistaken view, nevertheless it is a widely-shared one. But if we accept that a bigger EU is a desirable outcome then we should be prepared to accept that there might be some areas in which the consequences of that expansion might prove less than wholly desirable. Nevertheless, that is the price paid for the broader advancement of the national interest.

The Romanians and the Bulgarians are members of the club. I see no particular reason why they should not be permitted the same rights and privileges as those we insist upon for our own citizens. If a Briton may move anywhere in the EU why should a Romanian be denied the same privilege? It is a question of fairness and justice.

If they contribute as much to this country as their Polish predecessors we will be well-served by their admission. It is true that more Poles arrived to work in Britain than had been predicted. But so what? They have been of great service. The myth of the immigrant moocher is just that: a myth. (See here and here for example.)

Perhaps the Romanians and Bulgarians will prove less useful but there is, I think, little empirical evidence to suppose this is likely to be the case.

Instead we have a conversation in which it is presumed that immigration is a Very Bad Thing. Rather than a rational discussion about rights and obligations we endure a dismal and drab race to the bottom in which the parties compete to see who can nastier than the other. It fosters an oppressive, dispiriting, stinking atmosphere in which sensible debate becomes almost impossible because, actually, the parties appear to have decided there shouldn’t be a debate at all. Certainly not one in which it might ever be suggested that this country, ageing as it is, might actually benefit from immigration.

But then liberalism seems unfashionable these days. Which is sad not least because it suggests Britain is a more cowed, more angry, more bitter, more pessimistic country than we might like to think it is, could or should be.

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