The Last Taboo

‘Forty years after the 1971 Immigration Act, the numbers arriving are unprecedented. We need a breathing space’

Immigration Open Season UK Politics

We Need To Talk About Immigration. Some readers might be under the impression that we already do, that David Cameron’s stated aim that immigration has been too high, and that we should aim for net migration in the “tens of thousands” is proof that the years of silence are over, that the taboo has been broken. Certainly, after speeches on the subject by both Cameron and Angela Merkel, it has become acceptable to talk about the damage done by an addiction to the divisive doctrine of multiculturalism, and the need instead for integration.

However, the truth remains that the circle of fear which exists around the discussion of the effects of immigration remains unbroken; it has been ring-fenced as effectively as government spending on foreign aid. Yes, there are the occasional calls for a “healthy, open debate”, but these are usually signals that discussion is about to cease. The economic benefits, so loudly trumpeted over the past decade, have now been shown to be virtually non-existent when measured against the costs. The wilder claim made by some Labour ministers, that Britain’s amazing prosperity was largely due to immigration, now looks like a very bad joke indeed.

But it remains easier, given the toxicity of this subject in the minds of the elites at least, to continue to parrot the received line about the benefits of mass immigration, if not economically then certainly culturally. Restaurants will be mentioned, Huguenots pressed into service once again. This is understandable. Few people relish the thought of being cast out into a social or professional wilderness. There is no doubt that the population has effectively internalised the “worried about immigration = racist” mantra delivered to it from on high, so those with even the mildest qualms prefer to keep quiet. It’s noticeable now that the topic is backed away from in social situations, even among friends. The very language in which it can be discussed has become a touchy subject: the word “indigenous” to describe the non-immigrant population has largely been replaced by bland terms such as “the settled” or “traditional” population. I have heard the even more weightless “people who are already here”. 

This would be consistent with the “narrative” of our history promoted in recent years which dictates that Britain is and always has been a nation of immigrants, a demographic hotchpotch, and that England in particular is merely, to quote the title of comedian Eddie Izzard’s TV programme on the subject, a “mongrel nation”. Challenge the veracity of these claims and one will be met with looks of unease. Most people might indeed sense that what they know of our history, indeed their very sense of themselves, is being subtly deconstructed for political reasons, but they go along with it for a quiet life. At a dinner party, when I took to task an academically clever young woman who asserted loudly that of course Britain had been invaded “so many times” throughout its history, it was I who was left feeling rather alone at the table, despite the fact that what she had said was immediately understood by everyone else there to be complete nonsense.

The prohibitive atmosphere means that the continuing extraordinary levels of immigration (and contrary to anything the government says, they remain at the same levels as existed under Labour) are met largely with a resigned shrug by a population who no longer believe the political will to change the situation exists. Net migration to the UK rose last year by 20 per cent, to 239,000 — the difference between 575,000 incoming and 336,000 outgoing. By any standards these are staggering and historically unprecedented figures. Forty years after the restrictions put in place by the 1971 Immigration Act the numbers arriving are greater than anything that could have been imagined then.

But by concentrating on net immigration and integration, Cameron and the government are indulging in a simple sleight of hand — they can appear to be tougher on the issue while sidestepping the wider implications of how our society and culture is changing because of it. If, say, a million people were to arrive in 2012, and a million left, that would be zero net immigration: the government could claim complete success in getting migration under control. But such a situation would make us a giant landing strip, not a country in any recognisable sense.  

Immigration long ago ceased being about colour, and contrary to what the liberal elites believe, the majority of British people are not rabid racists just waiting for an excuse to march and burn, although it sometimes appears that the more accepting they are, the more frequent and hysterical become the charges of racism. But it is, most would agree, about culture, and if this appears to be changing as fast as it is in Britain now (figures from the Office of National Statistics show that in 2010 a quarter of live births were to mothers born outside the UK), the question of who is arriving and who leaving must surely not be one purely of numbers. 

This has consequences too for the possibilities for successful integration. Any healthy, decent society should be able to absorb people from outside itself, and Britain has been better than most. When you are not of the mainstream, there are compelling reasons to integrate. This used to be the case in Britain. But when people come from different cultures in big enough numbers, that need evaporates. And not just the need: immigration numbering in the hundreds of thousands every year makes it a simple impossibility.

One way forward would surely be some sort of five- or ten-year moratorium on any further long-term economic immigration of any kind (those genuinely seeking asylum would be excluded from this). Right now, this is a political impossibility, although with the prospect of fundamental changes in our relationship with the EU and its treaties becoming ever clearer, who knows how the situation might change. Such a breathing space would give us the chance to take stock of the current situation — in which, in parts of the country, there are large communities living parallel and separate lives — and then to try genuinely to heal divisions. It would give integration a real chance. The 80 per cent or so of the public worried about current immigration — and that figure includes people from established minority groups — might have their badly damaged faith in the political elites restored. As things stand, they can be forgiven for thinking that things will continue very much as before.