Immigration has been good for Britain. I wouldn’t be here without it. Let’s start at the very beginning: I was born British, in a hospital in Doncaster, on a cold April day in 1974. Three decades earlier, my Dad had been born some 4,000 miles away, in Baroda, India, in the state of Gujarat, But Dad was born British too, three years before Indian independence. He became a citizen of the Republic of India before his fourth birthday – but he’s become British again since.
It was on the Whitsun Bank holiday in 1968, having completed his medical studies, and spent a summer working as a doctor on the Indian railways, that he took a plane to Heathrow, to come to work in England.
It was exactly a fortnight earlier that Enoch Powell had given an infamously famous speech. Maybe that Rivers of Blood speech was not so well reported in Gujarat as Enoch may have hoped. Dad came anyway. He was joining a million and a quarter Commonwealth migrants in Britain. So Enoch was clear that his priority was no longer about curbing the in-flow of immigration – but about how urgently Britain might persuade most of those already here to return home.
Yet Enoch did, in this specific case at least, have an unusual ally: my grandfather, also called Sunder. He came to England and put a pretty generous repatriation package on the table: he’d help Dad set up a local surgery back in Baroda – and had begun to prepare plans to arrange his marriage too.
By then, my father had met my mother, a nurse who hailed from County Cork in southern Ireland. Cork definitely wasn’t British by the time she was born in the 1940s – though the funny thing was that she didn’t need or have a passport as she took the ferry from Cork to Holyhead, before taking a bus south to Portsmouth, to begin her training as a nurse. “I suppose you’re coming here as an immigrant”, said the ticket guard, looking at her one-way ticket. In fact, my Mum has never become a British citizen, though it hasn’t stopped her voting in 15 General Elections and 2 referendums since.
My family history is our national story too. I am a child of the post-war legacy of Empire and Commonwealth – and a child too of the NHS. So I will speak up for the contribution that immigration and integration have made to making Britain what it has become today – and to ensure Britain’s future too is as an inclusive and welcoming society.
So why not cross the floor – and agree with the other side, who say that: After Brexit, Britain should open its borders?
I fear that it risks fatally misunderstanding the core challenge faced by those of us who want to make the case for immigration in the Britain of 2017.
I’m clear about what that core priority must be: to rebuild public confidence in the contribution that immigration and integration can make to our country.
So I don’t believe that being pro-migration means always trying to maximise the amount of immigration that we have. If immigration is at 600,000 a year, can’t we push it up nearer to a million? If net migration is at 250,000, why not 500,000? If we have had free movement within the European Union, then why not global free movement when we leave.
I think that misunderstands the purpose of making a positive case for immigration – and doesn’t rise to the core test we need to meet to succeed.
We need to defend the contribution of migration to our society, to our economy and to our public services; we need to treat those who do come to participate in our society fairly, as well as being fair to those that they come to join; we need to uphold our international obligations, so that we
To achieve those things, we need to do something else too. We have to understand what has gone wrong – and use this reset moment to start to put that right.
We can explain what has gone wrong very simply. There has been a very significant loss of public confidence in how successive governments have managed migration over the last two decades. It isn’t difficult to explain why. The Labour governments failed to predict, prepare for or respond effectively to the largest migration wave in British history after the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004. Their Conservative-led successors pledged to reduce the net migration numbers, yet they rose instead, so every quarter’s immigration statistics generated yet more headlines about a promise the government could not keep.
The public now expect to see some significant changes to immigration policy after Brexit. But we should be clear, too, that most people blame the politicians not migrants themselves. Britain is not a nation of xenophobes. People are sceptical about the pace and scale of immigration – while they recognise the gains that managed migration brings to Britain.
If you don’t rebuild that confidence, there is no point in trying to win the argument with statistics about the net economic contribution to GDP. If people don’t believe there is a system that works, they simply won’t believe the numbers if produces.
We should change the free movement rules after Brexit. When we think about the right immigration system for Britain, very few people would make it a point of principle that immigration should prefer Bulgarians to Indians.
There is a principled argument for European free movement – it is that Europeans should prefer Europeans because we are all citizens of Europe. But that isn’t a case that works in Britain. It does command a broad majority across the other 27 member states. That’s because most people in the other countries combine their national identity with a European identity, and have a sense of European citizenship. That’s why, across Europe, people often make a distinction between free movement and immigration. Where European identity is strong, it is a hybrid category, as much like internal labour mobility as immigration.
The argument that free movement isn’t immigration has never made much sense in Britain – where only 15 per cent of people have a sense of European identity, while two-thirds of people say their national identity is national only. That is the reason why the the British always had a much thinner, and more transactional idea of what the European Union was all about
So the British case for EU free movement is much more tactical. Its part of a package. Its a price worth paying to get the trade deal we want. But we can’t just start from the trade-off.
We have to build a stronger consensus about the right immigration system for Britain here as well as to negotiate in Europe about what both sides can work.
Since we are going to change our policy after Brexit, we should have been much clearer, much quicker, that it should not involve retrospective changes for Europeans here. This was always the only ethical or practical solution. It should never have taken a whole year to begin to offer reassurances to those living here.
But there is much more potential for common ground on a future system than many people realise.
Very few people want to reduce student or skilled immigration – that is something where most Leave voters agree with Remain voters. But two-thirds of people do want to control the scale and pace of low- and semi-skilled migration – and that is something where Remain voters agree with Leave voters.
People don’t want to reduce the numbers of people who come to work in care homes – and they know that fruit needs picking – but they do think that the level and pace of low and semi-skilled migration is something that the UK should be able to control.
People do want to see a stronger commitment to ensuring the local impacts of migration on public services and housing are better managed. And people do want to see a greater effort to invest in skills and training here in those sectors which have come to depend most on migrant labour, alongside bringing in the skills that are needed to fill the gaps.
But this immigration debate has always been about much more than immigration. Britain in 2017 is a much more anxious, fragmented and divided country than any of us would want.
So here’s my main question to my fellow liberals on the other side: is it time to polarise or depolarise our identity and immigration debates in this country?
I know that for some, the answer is to polarise. There is a strong liberal instinct to fight back, to mobilise our tribe. If somebody wants to start a culture war, then we need to win it.
The EU referendum divided Britain – by place, between cities and towns, by class, across the generations. The surprise result saw an overnight redistribution of optimism and pessimism, of fear and anger, across different parts of Britain
“I want my country back,” was suddenly an argument which resonated in Cambridge and north London, instead of Lincolnshire and Norfolk. The thinking goes: If they can polarise, why can’t we? If Eurosceptics spent 40 years doing it, why should we give up after one or two. Well, if you think you’ve got the stamina, you’re welcome to try. But many of us think its time for more people to get out of the referendum trenches and to work out how we’re going to make Brexit work.
It can be useful to remember there is pride and passion on both wings of the debate. But glance across the Atlantic to Donald Trump’s America – and ask yourself if a mutual polarisation in which both sides of the argument always try to ratchet up the volume and temperature of our angriest public debates is the future we want for Britain.
So I’d much rather we worked to defuse a culture war than to fight one. It’s time for less shouting, and more listening in the immigration debate. And after Brexit isn’t the time for Britain to throw open the borders. Its time to bridge the divisions at home first. Its time to use the reset moment well – to rebuild confidence in how we manage immigration and integration in this country.
We will need to invest in an immigration system that people can believe is effective, and fair and humane. It should also mean investing time in engaging the public themselves in the choices we now face, about how to strike the right balances between the pressures and gains of immigration, and how to ensure we promote integration into British society
That’s how we will win the public and the political support we need for Britain remaining an inclusive, confident and welcoming country.
This is a version of Sunder Katwala’s speech delivered at the CapX debate on immigration. You can read a full write-up, and listen to the debate, here.