Today, the same arguments once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and east Europeans. However, Kenan Malik finds some comfort in reviewing the facts of the matter. He then tackles the illusions.
At the heart of the current debate about immigration are two issues: the first is about the facts, the second about the public perception of immigration.
The facts are relatively straightforward. Immigration is a good thing and the idea that immigrants come to Britain to live off benefits laughable. Immigrants put more money into the economy than they take out and have a negligible impact on jobs and wages. An independent report on the impact of immigration commissioned by the Home Office in 2003, looked at numerous international surveys and conducted its own study in Britain. “The perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, or that immigrants depress the wages of existing workers”, it concluded, “do not find confirmation in the analysis of the data laid out in this report”. More recent studies have suggested that immigration helps raise wages except at the bottom of the jobs ladder where it has a slight negative impact. That impact on low paid workers matters hugely, of course, but is arguably more an issue of labour organization than of immigration.
Immigrants are less likely to claim benefits than British citizens. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, of the roughly 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age in this country, about 90,000, or around five per cent, claim an “out of work benefit”, compared with around 13 per cent of Britons. Migrants from outside the EU are also much less likely to claim benefits.
The most comprehensive study to date of East European migrants in Britain concluded that “A8 immigrants who arrived after EU enlargement in 2004 […] are 60 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits, and 58 per cent less likely to live in social housing”. The study also discovered that “in each fiscal year since enlargement in 2004, A8 immigrants made a positive contribution to public finance despite the fact that the UK has been running a budget deficit over the last years”. This was because “they have a higher labour force participation rate, pay proportionately more in indirect taxes, and make much lower use of benefits and public services”. They paid around 30 per cent more in taxes than they cost our public services.
Whatever the truth about immigration, it is clear that there exists widespread popular hostility to immigrants. For some, often on the right, the hostility makes sense because, irrespective of its economic benefits, the social impact of immigration is destructive. For others, often on the left, such hostility exists because people are irrational and take little notice of facts and figures. Both arguments have little merit.
Immigrants, the critics insist, disrupt communities, undermine traditional identities, and promote unrestrained change. David Goodhart, director of Demos, whose book on immigration, The British Dream, is published on Monday, claimed last week that “Large-scale immigration has created an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds”. As a result, “for many of the white people […] the disappearance of familiar mental and physical landmarks has happened too fast”. He quotes one man from Merton in south London: “We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more”.
Had Arthur Balfour been able to read that, he would undoubtedly have nodded in agreement. Balfour was the Prime Minister in 1905 when Britain introduced its first immigration controls, aimed primarily at European Jews. Without such a law, Balfour claimed, “though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution […] nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come”. Two years earlier, the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration (an “alien” was, in the early twentieth century, both a description of a foreigner and a euphemism for a Jew) had expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live “according to their traditions, usages and customs” and that there might be “grafted onto the English stock […] the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe”.
The sense that Jewish immigration was uncontrolled and that “We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more”, was palpable in the discussions. “There is no end to them in Whitechapel and Mile End”, claimed one witness giving evidence to 1903 Royal Commission. “These areas of London might be called Jerusalem”. The Conservative MP Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon expressed the same sentiment through a quite extraordinary metaphor. “Ten grains of arsenic in a thousand loaves would be unnoticeable and perfectly harmless”, he told Parliament, “but the same amount put into one loaf would kill the whole family that partook of it”.
By the 1950s, the Jewish community had come to be seen as part of the British cultural landscape. The same arguments used against Jews half a century earlier were now deployed against a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. A Colonial Office report of 1955 echoed Arthur Balfour, fearing that “a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken […] the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached”. There were worries, too, about the uncontrolled nature of immigration. “The question of numbers and of the increase in numbers”, Enoch Powell insisted, lie at “the very heart of the problem”. “Whole areas, towns and parts of England”, he claimed, were being “occupied by different sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population”. A decade later Margaret Thatcher gave a notorious TV interview in which she claimed that there were in Britain “an awful lot” of black and Asian immigrants and that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. The echoes are unmistakable both of the debate about Jews before and of the contemporary immigration debate.
Just as Jews became an accepted part of the cultural landscape, so did postwar immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, though the acceptance was more grudging, and often not extended to Muslims. Today, the same arguments that were once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and East Europeans.
The idea that immigration is disruptive of culture, identity and social cohesion is, in other words, as old as immigration itself. Whether it is Irish or Jews coming to Britain, Italians or North Africans to France, Catholics or Chinese to America, every wave of immigration is met fear and hostility and a sense of being overwhelmed.