Immigration is arguably the most contentious issue in British politics today. And so, you might have expected last night’s CapX debate on the subject, organised in conjunction with QV Politics, to have been a heated, ill-tempered affair.
First, there was the provocative motion: “This house believes that Britain should open its borders after it leaves the European Union”, the sort of suggestion that leaves many people spluttering with indignation.
Then there was the backdrop to proceedings: behind the speakers, on the wall of Committee Room 10 of the House of Commons, was a monumental picture by George Frederic Watts entitled “Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes” (1846) – a depiction of an English king and his men fighting off the foreign hordes.
The explosives were in place. All that was needed was for someone to light the fuse and proceedings could have descended into the usual, unedifying all-heat-no-light handling of this most delicate of issues.
But that didn’t happen last night. Instead, the speakers on both sides – Nicky Morgan MP and Garvan Walshe for the proposition, Sunder Katwala and Professor Eric Kaufmann for the opposition – offered nuanced suggestions on what the UK’s approach to immigration should be as we prepare to leave the EU.
All four speakers in the debate – which we’ve embedded below in a special edition of the CapX podcast – agreed on the economic benefits of immigration. All four acknowledged the anxiety created by the recent acceleration in the rate of arrivals. Where they differed sharply was on how to manage the process.
Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary who campaigned for Remain during last year’s referendum and has been one of the most vocal Conservative advocates of a so-called soft Brexit, based her case for a liberal immigration system on the government’s own Brexit White Paper. Its section on immigration begins with a commitment to “remain an open and tolerant country, and one that recognises the valuable contribution migrants make to our society and welcomes those with the skills and expertise to make our nation better still.”
This, said Morgan, was a good starting point, before warning that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of business and higher education both during the Brexit process and when it comes to setting immigration policy afterwards.
Her views, she said, were informed by being the Member of Parliament for Loughborough – where she was called a racist during the 2005 election campaign for talking about immigration, and a racist during the 2016 referendum for ignoring it. As such, she had seen the problems that immigration brought – and also the benefits, not least to local businesses and the constituency’s university. But Britain, she said, is getting things broadly right: under the Conservatives, the system has been “toughened up”: “the loopholes have been closed”. For that reason, she argued, there is nothing to fear in taking an open approach.
There wasn’t much in Morgan’s speech that Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future and former head of the Fabian Society, disagreed with. As he acknowledged in his speech, which we have published as a separate article, he is a child of immigration – his grandfather came from India and his mother from Ireland.
But he argued that Britain’s recent experiences have poisoned the well – that public consent for immigration has been lost. The core priority, he argued, must be “to rebuild public confidence in the contribution that immigration and integration can make to our country” – to get permission for the kind of immigration people generally support (overseas students or those in high-skilled jobs) by restricting the kind they are increasingly uncomfortable with.
He also made an unlikely comparison between Nicky Morgan and Donald Trump, arguing that those who are trying to use Brexit to throw open the borders risk inflaming Britain’s divisions further: “Is it time to polarise or depolarise our identity and immigration debates? I’d much rather we worked to defuse a culture war than to fight one.”
For Garvan Walshe, a columnist for Conservative Home and CEO of Brexit Analytics, the economic need for immigration is beyond doubt. Walshe pointed out that the make-up of the CapX panel – a Canadian academic, an Irish commentator, and an Anglo-Irish-Indian policy expert – showed how Britain had benefited from mobility.
More generally, Walshe argued, the world is changing. Travel is getting cheaper and people expect to come and go freely across borders. Britain’s priority should be “designing a system that fits this more fluid world”.
But if many of the participants in yesterday’s debate are comfortable with this more fluid world, Eric Kaufmann, a political scientist at Birkbeck University, used his speech to remind the audience that most people are not.
According to Kaufmann, the author of the forthcoming book Whiteshift, the academic consensus is that the rise of populists like Donald Trump is explained by cultural anxiety, not economic discontent. Immigration, of course, goes to the heart of this unease.
If voters’ concerns regarding immigration are cultural, not economic, then the facts and figures demonstrating immigrants’ economic contribution are falling on deaf ears. Kaufmann cited research that demonstrates people are willing to forego economic gains if it means bringing the numbers arriving down.
And if it is cultural factors, not economics that have people worried, then integration is as important as the raw numbers of new arrivals. In fact, the importance of integration is something speakers on both sides acknowledged.
Judging by the impassioned contributions from the audience in the Q&A session afterwards, immigration will continue to both a fact of modern life – and a bitterly contested political issue. It is also one, as Robert Colvile of CapX, who was chairing the debate, pointed out in his introduction, that goes to the heart of so many other issues in our politics – not least the shape of Brexit, and whether we prioritise single market membership over free movement.
Who had the more convincing arguments? Listen to the debate, and judge for yourself…
You can read Sunder Katwala’s contribution to the debate here, along with Oliver Wiseman on the politics of immigration. Or you can check out previous episodes of the CapX podcast, including interviews with Nigel Lawson, Philippa Stroud, John Curtice and others. And for more on QV Politics, see their homepage.