Eating Humble Pie and Reframing Immigration Policy



A few days before the UK's EU referendum I got up in the very early morning and wrote down some thoughts I had been mulling over as immigration became the centre point of the Leave campaign. I didn't publish them becasue it was already too late and it felt that saying anything might further enflame the situation. Even though my 'reach' is very, very limited.


Since then much has been written about the Leave victory and what it might mean. I've added a few references and linked to the policy and empirical analyses I've found most useful. 


I publish my thoughts here more as an historical curiosity than anything else. Here they are.


Eating Humble Pie


Who is going to save Britain’s European bacon and eat some humble pie? Who, of our metropolitan elite, is going to front up and admit that as a political and economic class we have been cloth-eared, arrogant, self serving and too enamoured with our own certainties of aggregate analysis and light touch regulation that we have failed to hear, acknowledge, understand and meet and act upon the disquiet, anger, and frustration of those communities, families and individuals who often bear the brunt of large scale immigration and migration and their economic, sociological and psychological impacts?


Freedom of movement as a free for all


The facts are simple.


If we want the huge benefits of access to the single market we have to accept free movement. At least in the short to medium term that is a given. Maybe further down the line, with concerted action with our European partners some movement on freedom of movement might be possible?


If free movement is a given that does not mean that it has to be a free for all. And perhaps this is the greatest problem with European migration into the UK. There is a sense on the ground that there is nothing that can be done, that we have lost control of our labour markets, our high streets, our neighbourhoods and even our boot fairs; that the waves of migration are not only unstoppable but that they lap up and into communities left to fend for themselves, unmediated by the protection of an even-handed and watchful state. (See this good piece by Tony Hockley on the Southampton council estate where he grew up.)


Those beyond the pale


So often those who feel aggrieved are bullied and hectored by aggregate analysis and internationalist prerogative. Immigration is good for us, they are told, when looked at in the round, for all sorts of reasons: the demographic crisis; the labour shortages; the greater contribution to the Exchequer than strain upon it; the sheer diversity and richness of it all, Romanian folksongs and cheery Polish plumbers and builders whacking up our Islington extensions while our university faculties are enlivened by the best and brightest (and of course often those with greatest resources and advantage).


So often they are told that like us they should laugh into their breakfast granola topped with French yoghurt and Polish blueberries; they should smile at their good fortune that the streets teem with the reliable, cheap, resourceful craftspeople, labourers and factory workers and fruit pickers and nurses and carers of Eastern and Southern Europe (well, and France too, London is after all the sixth largest French ‘city’at 300,000 by population).


Bring me your huddled masses or at least your minibus-mobile, gang-mastered young men and women, your conscientious and religious settler families, your charming cuisine and news from foreign lands – or at least those snippets I hear before leaving you to look after my children, aging mum and incontinent dog.



Immigration plus


But it just doesn’t feel like that for many people. And, of course, it is a potent mix of concern and bewilderment and old prejudices are often close at hand. There is a sense of powerlessness at large and resentment at all manner of things – stagnant wages, the disappearance of jobs for life, the cold winds of global forces and new upstart economic powers, years and years of austerity, the surgeon’s knife cutting into the muscle and sinew of local service delivery, official indifference, condemnation from on high as bigotry and racism, and an ageing population that is feted by politicians while no-one is willing to pay the taxes that can be only way to save the sacred NHS that currently runs on thin air and Treasury fumes to meet exploding demand from increased life expectancy. (See this good piece by Will Davies on the Sociology of Brexit and the manner in which 1970s and 80s deindustrialisation laid the lasting ground for the Leave vote.)


So what can be done? Because even if the displacement and wage restraining impacts of immigration and migration are only ‘marginal’ there is a broader sense – horribly seized upon through the message discipline of the Leave campaign – that things are out of control. School places, A&E waiting times, the increasing difficulty of getting the GP you want, or any NHS dentist. The fight for housing as the public sector is cut ever more and private renting is left to the dogs while the once proclaimed right to home ownership recedes over the horizon in a cloud of noxious dust and hollow laughter.


And if those displacing and retraining effects are marginal why should the margins have to bear their full cost while the metropolitan middle classes reap the benefits, direct and indirect, of free movement?


So what can be done?


I think first what can be done is to eat some humble pie. It is time for some of the leading proponents of free movement and its benefits to admit that maybe they should have spent more time out in the sticks and out in real communities away from their spreadsheets and cost benefits analysis. And that from now on they will devote more attention to the local and real and perceived workings and effect and impacts and perceptions of free movement in the UK.


So set up some research that isn’t econometric and aggregate. And get people involved in it. Why not propose something like the Mass Observation research where ordinary people were encouraged to feed in their experiences and views through diaries, focus groups. Give people a stake in the process.


Reassure them that they will be heard. And that their concerns will be taken into account, be treated seriously and given due weight in policy formulation. Give people who have concerns about the levels and impacts of immigration a seat at the table and stop treating them as pariahs and racists. Which is not to say that there are not racists and right wing thugs amongst them. But stop making people who are frightened and angry feel that they are beyond the metropolitan pale of a tolerant society. (See this good piece by D'Marris Coffman on distribution of Leave votes by race as well as class).


Thirdly, set up a fund to mitigate the ‘marginally negative economic impacts’ of free movement in the UK. Others have advocated this but let’s do more than a fund (that might or might not be financed by the EU budget – as if that were infinitely elastic).


But also set up a task force or a department or a ministry. This would be charged with understanding and acting on issues arising out of present and future migration and immigration into the UK. It would monitor flows and destinations, commission fine grained and local studies as well as aggregate research. It would look at the tools that other EU members use – should there be compulsory registration of residence? should we look at the issue of identity cards? some kind of passport to public services and eligibility?


Take action in a joined up way to boost services where they are particular local strains through both improved provision but also local support in terms of understanding and mediating tensions. A Neighbourhood Support fund a bit like the old Neighbourhood Renewal Fund.


And it would be vigilant in terms of people abusing the welcome – grudgingly or not - extended to them by the UK – whether that be criminal activity, or benefits abuse, or illegal access to public services and the right to remain. (See Jonathan Portes ideas on reframing the immigration debate here published on 19 June 2016.)


Hopefully this would be more enabling and preventive than punitive. It would in some way be about setting out what the people of the UK expect – a set of common expectations – that would be as much aimed at reassuring the current population as ‘disciplining’ new arrivals.


But there is a sense that the UK is somehow a soft touch in the league of migrant destinations, that the UK is so gullible that it provides a warm and fertile soil for the feckless and criminal and those intent on doing harm and hoodwinking the bovine British people. That may not be ‘true’ (I really don’t know) but it seems to have some resonance.


Maybe, as Van Morrison said, it’s too late to stop now. Maybe we have gone beyond the tipping point. Maybe the arguments about managing and monitoring free movement are too subtle and maybe, well, too constrained by the principle of free movement.


But maybe, if you believe in the good, pragmatic and largely level-headed sense of the peoples of the UK (here is an analysis of the vote), there is just time to make amends, to offer a new, vigorous and vigilant deal, a verifiable pledge to urgent action that the current government would undertake to put in place with swiftness and resolve the days and months after the referendum.


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