At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show, Birmingham City Council had an exuberantly floriferous display celebrating the Windrush generation. It is a reminder (to non-gardeners at least) that many of the plants we think of as essential to the British garden come from the farthest reaches of the world. A gentle – and quintessentially British – pastime (often unkindly seen as an activity best suited for the limbo between retirement and death) owes its beauty and variety to imports from China, South Africa, Turkey and South America.
As in gardening so in other spheres. Much of what we see as British has had foreign influences which have – over time – subtly changed and mixed with the local to create what we have now. Being British – whether we refer to flora, horses, monarchs, the English language or even our financial system (which owed much to Lombards and the Dutch long before American bankers arrived) – has rarely involved an insistence on biological, racial or other tests of purity. Almost in spite of itself, Britain has been a melting pot quite as successful as – and for longer than – its noisier American cousin.
And yet. Two years ago Britain voted to leave the EU largely because of concerns about immigration, concerns which were in part expressed in crudely offensive ad hominem terms. Britain is not alone in this. Across Europe immigration is one of the top two concerns in countries as varied as France and Lithuania. Politicians in Denmark, Germany, Austria, France and Italy have spoken about creating hostile environments, deportations and closing borders.
In all the words agonisingly written to explain this, the underlying assumption has generally been that the desire to control migration cannot be a good in itself but can only have arisen because of other factors: poverty, social exclusion, wage pressure, rage at globalisation, cocking a snook at the elites, lack of education, xenophobia, hatred of different religions and cultures, racism, a fear of terrorism, nostalgia for a non-existent age.
All of these have been put forward as factors which far right populists have used for their own sinister ends. Immigration is assumed to be a good with no or few downsides and only illiberal barbarians would try to control it. Easy to see why many think this: there is a natural sympathy for the poor and oppressed seeking a better life; scapegoating others has a long and dishonourable history; people like to think of themselves as friendly and welcoming; few closed societies are successful or pleasant.
But there is a liberal case for immigration control. And it needs to be made – and by those who want to strengthen and preserve an open, welcoming liberal democracy.
It is the belief that a country is not simply a geographical area with space to be filled up but a society, a home, a family, whose members have mutual obligations and an often unexpressed sense of solidarity with and to each other.
It is the belief that to maintain a sense of society, the social cohesion and shared – if usually unexpressed – assumptions necessary to make democracy work, its citizens should be able to choose who is let in and on what terms. All the more so when that democracy is seeking to make a welfare state work.
It is a belief that an immigration policy which does not have the consent of a country’s citizens lacks a fundamental legitimacy and that lack, if not addressed, is corrosive to a democracy’s underpinnings.
It is a belief in the rule of law and fairness – that if there are rules, there should be consequences for those who break them. When people see migrants breaking the law to get here without any consequences, it makes those who do respect the law feel they are being taken advantage of.
One of the reasons people were outraged by the injustices done to the Windrush immigrants or some EU citizens was that it looked as if a failure to deal with illegal migration was being compensated for by arbitrary harshness to those here legally. It suggested a state which is incompetent, arbitrary and malicious. If it can behave thus to those who have a right to be here, very few of us can be confident of not being caught by its capricious tentacles.
But that outrage does not mean that people want those who do break immigration laws to be allowed to get away with it. The rule of law will be undermined rather than strengthened if countries fail to enforce laws because it is too difficult to do so or because they are afraid of emotional blow-back.
It is the belief that people in a country are not simply economic units but people with a shared history, culture, values, attitudes and that without this glue a society can end up fracturing or end up being held together by ever more authoritarian governance. Without such bonds ever increasing diversity and differences risk weakening a society.
It is a belief that the economic advantages immigrants may bring are not – and should not be – the only relevant admission criteria: a willingness and ability to integrate on the host society’s terms are necessary if society is not to atomise into mutually uncomprehending or hostile groups. Otherwise tolerance can end up being little more than turning a blind eye to behaviour which undermines the very liberties a society claims to cherish.
It is an understanding that change can be destabilising and unsettling and that, therefore, immigration needs to be at a pace and in numbers which permit comfortable absorption. It is an understanding that all change, even change for the better, has a cost and that the costs and benefits of such change need to be fairly shared.
For all the endless discussion of immigration, racism and diversity there has been over recent years, we have got this debate – and our policy – the wrong way round. We have ended up talking about and, in some cases, behaving towards immigrants in a harsh way without achieving any real control. Those with justifiable concerns have not been satisfied while liberals have clutched their pearls at the language used. It is quite some achievement to be both ineffective and nasty.
The right and responsible thing to do is to manage immigration in the national interest. That means making hard-headed decisions about who to let in and who to keep out and doing so primarily in the interests of existing citizens. It means being clear that the would-be immigrant’s “I want” should not automatically get or override a society’s collective right to determine what sort of society it wants to be and that making such a choice is not inherently anti-immigrant but the mark of a grown-up society. It means reconsidering whether asylum laws and Conventions written in and for a different age need to be reviewed and rewritten.
Above all, it means taking back control both from the “Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends” crowd and those who think that wanting any limit on or control over immigration is the mark of Cain. One test for Sajid Javid is whether he can make a start on doing so.