Perfidious Albion and the phantom economic migrant

Posted on: 11 October 2011 by Alexander Hay

The current debate on immigration is being used as a cover for our own hypocrisy, as David Cameron's recent speech outlining a 'crackdown' all too readily demonstrates.

Hysteria over immigration is a distraction from the malaise that effects our national soul

Britain is in many ways a far more tolerant, integrated country than the rest of Europe. It is, however, one that is contradictory, and often to an extreme, with an imported monarchy, ethnic minorities slamming Polish immigrants and Telegraph readers complaining of being 'swamped' by ex-gurkhas they had previously lionised as heroes.

This approach is, at best, based on cognitive dissonance, wherein two contradictory thoughts coexist in the same mind. At worse, it seems brazen and opportunistic, which naturally brings us to Prime Minister David Cameron.

Having spent over a year in power, his moderate, London Metropolitan mask is slipping and the ugly, cynical nature of the Conservative party is reasserting itself. One of the most recent examples of this has been his proposals to crackdown on that most Daily Mail-friendly of folk devils, the economic migrant.

His speech yesterday was full of predictable dog whistle phrases designed to appeal to middle England. "Fairness - real fairness...", "yes, we need immigration, but it needs to be controlled...", "...magnet for fraudsters", "real limits...", "proper control..." It's hard not to be reminded of Cameron's stint as a PR man, because much of his rhetoric isn't about ideas or thoughts, but feelings and gut knee-jerk reactions. In that sense, he is perfectly qualified to channel the mildly simmering resentment, self-pity, xenophobia and sense of entitlement that has become more openly aired, the longer the economic downturn has gone on.

It's also completely misleading. Strip away the feelings, and you actually have proposals that are still trying to have it both ways. Cameron may rail against 'economic migrants' of the sort that apparently steals jobs at the local KFC, but he's all in favour of "...the investors and the entrepreneurs who will create the businesses and jobs of tomorrow and the scientists who will help keep Britain at the heart of the greatest advances in medicine, biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and communications." In other words, he's all for disparaging foreigners except when the UK's own lack of talent in certain areas requires some well-timed hypocrisy.

Rich business people, regardless of their provenance, will also be allowed in based on 'merit', which is to say, deference to wealth transcends all racial and cultural barriers. In any case, this crackdown will focus on the easy targets and the ones the government can afford to pick on.

Other proposals are simply trying to repackage the obvious - forced marriages are covered by UK anti-slavery laws, not to mention the Human Rights Act of 1998 - a law which the Conservatives in the coalition government seem keen to repeal. If these laws are not enforced now, or social workers aren't doing their jobs, then how is this proposed crackdown going to make anything different?

The issues that Cameron refused to address, however, were plain by their absence. Firstly, unless the UK withdraws from the EU, any EU citizen covered by the Schengen Agreement can still migrate to the UK, presumably to eat our swans.

Secondly, the real reason why we have economic migration is because we don't value work or education enough in the first place. The minimum wage is a pittance and the notion of a 'living wage' remains a radical idea. Immigrants do these jobs because they can afford to live cheaply and send money back home, and because these jobs would otherwise go unfilled. We need to attract scientists and innovators because we don't encourage our own talent and are now set to make science degrees prohibitively expensive.

Meanwhile, the upper middle classes, including a fair few Tory voters, have benefited from lower labour costs without complaint, as consumers of all classes and backgrounds gladly buy cheap food produced or picked by cheap labour, or manufactured even more cheaply in the third world.

And at least economic migrants pay tax, unlike many UK business people, including several Tory donors, who dodge paying tax by moving their assets offshore or engaging in loopholes and accountancy legerdemain.

Places like the Mediterranean, Thailand and France are full of UK ex pats who contribute nothing to the home country they can return to at any time, alienate the locals and live in sealed off ghettoes. Indeed, the UK ex pat is the very model of the dodgy immigrant they sometimes claim to be escaping from; proudly insular, invasive, self-serving and parasitic.

For all this, though, Britain remains a tolerant open country, but it continues to roil with a poisonous hypocrisy. Cameron encapsulated this with a single sentence in his speech: "First we need to be clear about what the problem is." Expect no such clarity, however. 

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Alexander Hay

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