At my nearest library recently there was an art exhibition featuring the works of local school children on the subject of ‘unity’, with lots of drawings (many of them outstandingly good) emphasising how we’re all the same (and yet diverse) and that what we have in common is far more important than anything that divides us. We are totally, totally united.
Because I’m a terrible person, there was once a time when this sort of thing would have caused me to break out in an involuntary sneer – except that this was just after the Manchester bombing and one of the schools involved was my kids’, and it just made me feel sad for that generation. A generation who will probably never know what it’s like to visit a museum without having their bags searched or enjoy a major city space without anti-vehicle barriers, or be able to travel on public transport without the fear in the back of their minds that someone is intent on murdering them – a terror threat that is almost never going away, and indeed will mostly likely get worse. A generation who will just accept that this is part of life – perhaps it has always been like this – because that’s what they have been taught.
For which a great deal of thanks must go to Tony Blair’s government, and all those who played a role in its immigration policy. Of course, like that other Blair-era act of wilful, reckless naivety, the Iraq War, no one involved in it, nor anyone who cheered for it, has ever expressed the slightest doubt or remorse; indeed they maintain the confident belief that not only are they right, but people who disagree with them are moral deviants.
Nineteen winters later and that policy to radically alter the make-up of British society most certainly played a big part in the country’s dramatic decision to leave the EU, a victory that would not have been possible without the issue of migration (whatever Leave campaigners might say or wish). And yet the paradox is that the British public came to vote on the least disruptive and contentious of migration flows – that of other Europeans – partly because of taboo. Now, if a leaked document to the Guardian is to be believed, the government is going to ‘deter’ EU immigrants from settling after Brexit, confident in the belief that this is what the public desires.
And yet despite the prominence of eastern Europeans in the bigger narrative, this only ever represented a minority of migration to Britain; at the time when everyone was talking about Polish plumbers, only one in five newcomers came from this continent. White central European migrants are simply more visible – paradoxically – because as young workers they have high levels of interaction with the natives, while migrants from South Asia often went straight into already migrant-heavy areas. To those with little English and coming to this country through family-led migration, their contact with members of the opinion-forming classes was basically zero.
It’s hard to imagine now but, before 2004, migration even in the abstract really was a not-OK subject; I recall one BBC report in which the Tories raised the issue in a manner that was by today’s standards anodyne, in response to which the Beeb brought on six voices to condemn it, clearly giving the impression that this was a totally mad opinion.
It was only after the A8 accession that the subject of immigration became deracialised, when Trevor Phillips first began to step outside the bubble to express concerns about radical change, followed by David Goodhart’s influential 2005 essay on social solidarity.
Yet the fact that European migration is seen as the issue reflects the fact that the taboo is still strong. Average outcomes between immigrant groups vary hugely, and the social cost of migration from neighbouring countries is far lower than those with hugely different cultures.
Indeed, since one of the major predictors of anti-immigration sentiment is anxiety about crime, crime rates among different nationalities vary to a great deal and – contrary to the idea that the public are woefully misinformed on the subject – this correlates with opposition to immigration from those countries.
That’s why a numbers target makes no sense, and a far more logical solution would be to have a three or four-tier system, with free movement from other rich countries, some restrictions on developing and middle tier nations (which would include a few EU countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, but probably no longer Poland) and strict rules regarding poorer states, from where the vast bulk of the economic and social costs of migration arises.
This is politically difficult because we have to pretend that race, religion and culture are not relevant factors, that it is simply about numbers, so that migration from Poland or Hungary is no different to that from Pakistan or Somalia, with all the same consequences, the same divisions and upheavals, the same crime and poverty rates. Had previous migration to our country consisted solely of eastern Europeans then I imagine that schoolchildren in north London would not be drawing sweet pictures about ‘unity’, because they wouldn’t need to. By all means we can and should phrase the truth delicately and gently, but simply pretending otherwise leads to poor decision-making.
I feel sorry for the many young, university-educated whose freedom to move, study and work around the continent is now being threatened. And yet had a few people articulated that this freedom, in order to work, must be restricted to the continent and not to a wider idea of a borderless world, then the result of the referendum might have been different. After all, if you knocked down the wall dividing you and your neighbour’s gardens you’d want to be doubly sure the external wall around you both was secure. And yet because of such taboos our government, bizarrely, may soon be imposing immigration controls on Germans, Italians and Scandinavians, despite the social and economic benefits of such movement hugely outweighing the costs.