Policy groundhog day: On immigration, Cameron’s words were nothing new

If you take the long view on immigration policy, the similarities between Cameron’s speech and the language of immigration over the last twenty five years are striking.

If you take the long view on immigration policy, the similarities between Cameron’s speech and the language of immigration over the last twenty five years are striking

We’ve been here before.

While there were elements of Cameron’s speech on Friday that we should be quietly positive about – for example, the reintroduction of the migrant impact fund – a lot of it sounded all too familiar and it was another example of an approach to immigration mired in the past.

In his speech, Cameron made reference to the UK’s history of providing safe havens and offering “sanctuary to those fleeing tyranny and persecution”. While this is true in cases, it doesn’t tell the whole story and the history of UK immigration is littered with examples of reactive attempts to slam the door once too many horses have bolted into the stable.

It is true that at the beginning of the 20th century the UK gave asylum to Jews fleeing the pogroms, but the numbers of Jewish asylum seekers were limited in an attempt to appease rising anti-Semitism in the UK and the government only allowed Jews in which the pre-existing Jewish community agreed to help. These restrictions were only relaxed in 1938 for political reasons as way of trying to separate the UK from Germany.

Similarly, yes, Ugandan Asians were resettled in the UK, but their arrival led to the government actually tightening nationality rules for commonwealth citizens after which, immigration policy became essentially based on race.

This reference to history is a common technique used in selling restrictive immigration policy, especially during New Labour and their attempts to tackle asylum. As Schuster and Solomos have written, it feeds the myth of British decency and this sanitises and conveniently erases Britain’s history of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism from the public memory. By continuing to positively frame the history of immigration into the UK, it also whitewashes it.

Elsewhere in his speech, Cameron spoke of the pressures that immigration brings to bear on services and this has been a common theme in public discussions of immigration for at least a generation.

Yet, does this not just divert the gaze away from the issue that part of the reason for this pressure is cumulative effect of funding cuts in all areas of public services, especially at a local level? As the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe said on Friday, “Cameron’s proposals are the wrong solutions to made up problems”.

On the question of policy, there are a number of parallels too.

If there is one overriding leitmotif in successive governments’ approaches to immigration it is an obsession with numbers. Unpicking the rhetoric, this reduction to numbers is based less on public service pressures and more on cultural difference as if there were some form of mystical threshold of tolerance and a limit to how much diversity we can stomach.

Ironically, it is control that is held up to be a necessary part of ensuring that race relations or community cohesion remain positive. This has been the case for last 100 years.

Finally, the proposals outlined in Cameron’s speech on Friday to require landlords, businesses and colleges to inspect documents and monitor visas are just the latest in a long line of moves that effectively outsource immigration control. The 1987 Carriers Act made airline and shipping companies liable for allowing people without documents to travel. Later, as New Labour reacted to Sangatte, it was haulage firms that became de facto immigration officers.

This widening and privatisation of the dragnet, on top of the public being urged to inform the authorities if they suspect illegal immigrants, brings a whole new, more dystopian, meaning to ”we’re all in this together’.

Not that you would necessarily think it from the clamour of recent weeks, but immigration is actually a relatively consensual topic in the UK (within mainstream politics) and the continuities mentioned here are merely some of the more salient examples that emerged from Cameron’s speech.

Policy perspectives have stayed oriented towards a few narrowly defined areas and what we are left with is a history of tinkering at the edges – attempts to shave a few thousand of the numbers here, stop families reuniting there, and so on and so forth – rather than the bold, progressive, reordering of the debate which is required.

In reality, the last 25 years of immigration has been about the narcissism of small policy differences and Cameron’s speech should be seen in this longer-term perspective.

Sam Bennett is a researcher in immigration and critical linguistics at Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poland. Follow him on Twitter

A fully referenced version of the article is available from the author: [email protected]

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