Want to make the case for immigration? Then stop talking about money

The public aren't worried only about the economic impact of immigration.

The debate around immigration has become rather toxic of late, but also rather strange. Almost every day there is a story in the papers linking migrants from the EU to ‘benefit tourism’, and yet there is scant evidence supporting the claim that it constitutes a significant problem.

According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), 16.6 per cent of working age UK nationals claimed benefits in 2012 compared to 6.6 per cent of working age non-UK nationals. As Ranjit Sidhu recently wrote for Left Foot Forward, if the rest of us behaved like migrants the government would have significantly more money in its coffers.

And yet public attitudes remain stubbornly hostile to immigration, despite the mountain of evidence demonstrating its economic benefits. People who see migration as a problem outweigh those who see it as opportunity by a whopping 64 to 29 per cent. Surprisingly perhaps, 40 per cent of Labour supporters think immigration is bad for the economy compared with 36 per cent who believe it is good.

There is ample evidence available with which to counteract myths like these. Migrants are good for the economy and put more into the collective pot than they take out. If it matters, migrants also tend, on average, to be better educated than their British counterparts.

So why the persistence of myths around benefit tourism? Are we, the British, really so dull as to miss what is staring us in the faceeven if, as Bertie Wooster put it, it is “handed to us on a skewer with tartar sauce”? Have the public really been ‘brainwashed by Tory propaganda’, as some suggest?

On the Daily Politics last Wednesday, I overheard shadow business secretary Chuka Ummuna implying that complaints about immigration were really code for economic concerns. In other words, it’s all about the economy, stupid.

This is a common theme, particularly on the left. When people say they are concerned about immigration we assume they are really expressing in code concern about their jobs, their income or their mortgage.

Certainly there are reasons why those at the bottom of the labour market may be concerned about wages, and these concerns should not be dismissed lightly. However I suspect that blaming it all on ‘the economy’ is to get things at least partly wrong. Concerns about the economic impact of immigration may just as likely be rationalisations for other, more basic fears about the pace of social and cultural change.

That’s certainly what the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory believes. It says that cultural concerns better explain negative attitudes towards migration than a person’s economic position.

Of course, when people talk about ‘culture’ they aren’t referring to the usual tabloid tropes about Muslims trying to ‘ban’ Christmas, but rather to fears about the pace of change in their communities. They’re not concerned about the colour of a person’s skin but rather worried that one day they will be the only person on the bus who is speaking English.

It is, in essence, about whether England feels like England. And that’s not the England of Enoch Powell or the English Defence League, but may just as well be the England of George Orwell, who wrote that “there is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is a culture as individual as that of Spain”.

However fashionable it may be to pretend otherwise, for most people this remains the case.

It’s not enough to dismiss this as xenophobia, although a small proportion of it probably is. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, 60 per cent of those who came to Britain in the 1960s and 70s want to see a cut in immigration to the UK. Thirty nine percent of non-UK born white respondents earning £75,000 per year reported preferences for ‘a lot’ less migration.

Some might see this as a wish by some to kick away the drawbridge once they’re safely on the ship. But it may simply relate to why many came to Britain in the first place: they were attracted by social and cultural traditions which they now (unduly, in my opinion) worry are disappearing.

A first step in assuaging these fears would be to listen to those espousing them, rather than simply reeling off GDP figures or accusing people of being ‘brainwashed’ by the tabloids. It isn’t always about the economy, and those who only see things as lines on a graph risk looking stupid themselves if they don’t engage with other worries about immigration.

For those of us who do see immigration as a positive thing, the failure to engage with the public on the issue could ultimately have egregious consequences.

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