By Marcus Hunt
There are potentially many reasons why an individual might be pro- or anti-immigration. Beliefs about immigration’s concrete effect on the economy, crime, or public services like health and education can be important. However, most people who take a strong view on immigration – and here I include myself – are not well educated about its actual empirical effects. Even if they tried to educate themselves, they would find a whirl of contradictory socio-economic evidence emanating from various think-tanks.
It seems to me instead that people’s views on the effects of immigration on society are derivative of a more basic pro- or anti- feeling about immigration – people first have a feeling and then seize upon supposed arguments and data, not vice versa. This feeling is itself likely a compound of several influences.
Most obviously, it may be produced by micro-level differences in the ways that people of different backgrounds and economic classes experience immigration in their own lives: the unskilled worker and long-time Dagenham resident who sees his own community disappearing, versus the provincial yuppy who moves to London and thinks its diversity is quite refreshing – when viewed from inside their gated community.
The anti- feeling about immigration may also in some cases be inspired by racism. I mean racism not in the over-inflated, over-leveraged sense it is often used today: not simply an understandable unease or a clumsy curiosity about people and practices that are different or strange, but a visceral hatred of individuals on account of their race, an inability to view others as equals and individuals.
It’s impossible to say to what extent this sort of racism contributes to opposition to immigration; it is difficult for sociologists and pollsters to exactly capture the subtleties of our social attitudes, especially when they are cloaked in taboo. Anecdotally however, speaking for myself and for the few of my friends who are also anti-immigration, racism is not a contributing factor: we have close friends of other nationalities, we’d marry them, and we enjoy learning about other ways of life. In our darkest fantasies we wouldn’t wish someone ill, or give a dirty look, because they were Black or veiled. But we’re still vehemently anti-immigration.
I think instead that perhaps the fundamental distinction between those who have the pro- or anti- immigration feeling is optimism versus pessimism. It’s not that pro-immigration supporters are the kind and humane ones, whilst anti-immigration supporters are unkind and inhumane. Rather, those in favour of immigration see benefits everywhere; in the extreme they imagine that immigration will create a society that is materially richer, and transcendent of the divisions of race and religion – a society of prosperous world-citizens. By contrast, those against immigration imagine a society that races to the bottom – the labour force swollen and state services buckling under tremendous demand, the barriers of race and religion being erected not between different states but now within them as well. As noted, these two ‘feelings’ are just that – feelings, or at best semi-coherent ideologies – that are rarely if ever put to the test by any of the little concrete empirical information that exists.
However, as a partisan in this dispute – as a pessimist – I think that in the area of communal integration or communal harmony, we really do have some good empirical evidence that suggests that immigration is, and will growingly become, a problem for our society. The evidence does not depend on debateable economic data or interpretive investigations into immigration’s effects on opaque state agencies. The evidence plain, and is both historical and contemporary – a matter of transparent comparative politics. It is simply that there are very few multi-ethnic societies in which ethnicity does not become a social cleavage around which political parties form and around which tendentious, sometimes violent, disputes often arise.
Indeed most of the civil wars and civil strife of recent times have reflected ethno-religious power struggles – Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, Ukraine, Burma, Yugoslavia, the list is long. This is not simply a reflection of poverty and underdevelopment. Ulster, which in the 1960s was a highly-advanced industrial society, saw a vicious ethno-religious conflict which claimed thousands of lives. It undoubtedly would not have happened if English and Scottish Protestants had not been immigrants to Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries. In our own society we see that political divisions along ethnic lines are already forming; 68% of ethnic minorities vote Labour, compared to only 31% of White British people – in America, a country considerably more advanced down the path of immigration, the racial differences in voting patterns are much worse.
Most starkly, we can be reasonably certain that, even if the campaign for Scottish independence fails, at least around 40% of Scots will vote to leave the UK – a figure which would be much higher if the choice was between independence and being an undevolved part of a unitary British state. Many Scots, who share a common history, religion, language, and culture with the rest of the British wish to leave the UK. In light of this fact, what prospect is there for England remaining a single polity in the face of the extreme differences of ethnicity and religion it is breeding within itself through immigration? In light of all this simple and incontrovertible evidence, an optimistic view of immigration’s consequences in this respect is fantastical – not just optimism but wishful thinking, in the same category as spending one’s savings on lottery tickets.