An honest appeal for an intelligent discussion of immigration – Part 2 of 3

Well, it has to be a debate about what sort of country Britain is, and what sort of country we want it to be. It has to be a self-conscious engagement with the idea of Britain, the nature of the national community; it has to explore the concepts of citizenship and the nature of belonging; it has to historicize and contextualise itself both by coming to an understanding of the British story and by seeking to understand Britain’s place in the world now – the relationship of British specificity to the generalities of globalization, postmodernity, liberal capitalism, representative democracy. We need a sophisticated examination of ourselves and we have to understand what it will mean for our identity if we are a society which encourages mass immigration or a society which seeks to prevent it. The debate must penetrate deeper than superstructural banalities; it must learn to express itself more confidently and idiosyncratically than current rhetoric has thus far allowed it to. And it must be a debate that is aware of itself, that reflects sedulously on the motives underlying our sentiments.

The encouragement and discouragement of immigration are positions that arise directly and legitimately from certain beliefs about what sort of a country we are and what sort of a country we want to become. It isn’t possible just to hold the two possibilities (a false opposition in any case considering the almost limitless number of intermediary states) up alongside each other and choose between them as if one is choosing fruit: there are no similarly simple, self-evident criteria for choosing. We make other decisions about the sort of society we want to live in and these decisions – these value judgements – imply a position on immigration.

I have expended quite a lot of words vituperating the liberal position, but it is entirely legitimate and coherent. Liberals see societies as contractual aggregations of individuals who have bound themselves together to ensure a mutual protection of liberty. They believe in individuality as an absolute or a relative good. A society is healthiest, most vibrant and progressive if it houses and protects an almost limitless variety of individuals each pursuing their own conception of the good life. Diversity and its centurion, tolerance, are the foundations of a good society for the liberal. It follows immediately and emphatically on this that liberals believe that immigration is a good thing. Immigration will augment diversity by bringing into a closed community (always prone to stagnation and homogenisation) distinctive foreign cultures. The exposure to even more varied manifestations of human existence will reinforce the lesson that the different forms of human life that we come across are contingent and therefore permissible. Thus the unfamiliar will become familiar; fear will give way to acceptance; our sympathies will widen as new ways of living are made real to us, human; tolerance will be strengthened, its purview broadened.

Liberalism is a permissive creed and capitalism (its socio-economic helpmeet) a permissive economic system. Unless there is a compelling reason to think that mass immigration will hurt people and restrict their freedom to pursue their own conception of the good within the social compact of equalized liberty, then liberalism will stand aside. To the liberal culture is fragmentary; just so many shards of ideas and ways of being represented by a hodgepodge of individuals – just so many disparate atoms in the societal bucket. Without a conception of wholeness, unity, historical primacy there can be no objection to an influx of the foreign.

I am not by any means contemptuous of these principles, but I am suspicious of them. Suspicious of my motives when I incline towards them. There is a very powerful social incentive to adopt these principles, a whole apparatus of social control which pushes us towards the internalisation of liberalism. My instincts are liberal; the political tradition that I feel reverence for is liberal. There is even for me a sort of piety that on some level I feel ought to be practiced in talking about liberalism. And in constructing my self-image, in seeking to project a certain perception of myself to other people, I am very conscious of wanting to identify – and be identified – as a liberal. Implicitly liberalism is virtue. But the sub-rational element of this, the aesthetic element, the element of social posturing in this concerns me. Marxists have denigrated liberalism as the political creed of the bourgeoisie and up to a point they’re right – there is no more comfortable or natural creed for the educated middle-class. Liberalism is the political equivalent of having gone to the right school or speaking with the right accent: it identifies one as belonging to a group – the respectable, progressive, socially concerned middle-class. Liberalism suits these people (people like me) very well: freedom from interference appeals to the wealthy and educated; tolerance appeals to those who are self-confident and capable of shaping their own lives; diversity appeals to those who can afford to live in homogenous, sanitized communities.

The anti-immigration perspective follows just as coherently on a conservative idea of what Britain is like and what it should be like. For conservatives Britain is not an island of individuals who have engaged to band together because it is in their interests; it is a historical community bound together by shared values and a shared culture. Britain – both state and society – has an organic existence that parallels that of a plant or a person. The conservative values stability, order, familiarity. She prefers the given to schemes for change; the concrete to the abstract; one pound today rather than two tomorrow.

Conservatism takes culture much more seriously than liberalism does. It realises that people with a shared history, with shared daily experiences, with a common public realm and a common language will form a community. There is a sense of familiarity, of identity in a common purpose. That familiarity, that common purpose and the sense of everyone being exposed to the same dangers, creates a sense of safety and understanding. We are willing to assume certain things about members of the tribe, to accept on faith that they will act in a certain way. They belong to us and we belong to them. This allows a collective consciousness to exist that permits peaceful, stable coexistence.

The conservative argues that mass immigration is a dangerous, destabilising change which will rent the existing order, disrupt continuity with the past and destroy the solidarity that underlies social stability. In encouraging mass immigration Britain would be importing an element which did not belong to the national community, something that amounts to the importation of social division. Britain would cease to be home to one community and there is no evidence that the forces of social order and assimilation would prevail over those of dissolution and tension. A society divided against itself (the Thucydidean nightmare of stasis at Corcyra) is the conservative nightmare and, for them, immigration invites it unnecessarily.

Of course with both of these sketches I have downplayed the significance of economic considerations. This is partly in reaction to the overrepresentation of economic arguments in the existing debate; I want to rehabilitate ideas and I see little danger of utilitarian economic considerations being neglected. Ours has become a Treasury politics, statistically driven, reductively economic; to start a little trade in ideas and underlying values will not overturn that. And I wouldn’t want to annihilate it even if I could. We need to have discussions about the impact of immigration on GDP. It is important that we listen to industry and give thought to the economy’s skills needs. The effect of mass (and unevenly distributed immigration) on service provision needs to be exhaustively examined. And demographic studies of the potential impact of immigration on the country’s population profile needs to be undertaken. But above all these things – and prior to them – we need to decide what sort of character we want our national community to have.

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