7 October 2015

Why the outrage? Theresa May was right on immigration

By David Goodhart

Theresa May yesterday made a rather technical speech about immigration that reiterated government policy about trying to reduce current levels (as supported by 80 per cent of the public) and made some interesting, albeit tentative, suggestions for reforming asylum policy.
And it brought the roof down. Inflammatory. Irresponsible. Mendacious. What is going on? There was the usual argument about the stats (does immigration reduce wages at the bottom? do too many students stay on after their courses?) on which I think May was broadly right, but the facts are fuzzy and reasonable people can disagree.

But I think there are two bigger reasons for the outrage—one because of what was said and the other because of what was not said. The one sentence—not expanded upon—that made some people very cross was this: “Because when immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society.”

A bit sweeping perhaps but broadly true. I am director of the Demos Integration Hub (integrationhub.net) which pulls together on one website much of the relevant data on issues of ethnic minority integration and segregation. The Hub provides plenty of evidence of convergence on common norms and unselfconscious mixing across ethnicities in modern Britain. But there are also parts of the country marked by division and low trust across ethnic boundaries.

And even across the mainstream there is evidence of some divergence between the white British majority and minorities, in part because of the speed of change. Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College has done a ward analysis of the 2011 census and found that more than 40 per cent of visible minorities live in wards where the white British are a minority (sometimes a small minority)— the figure was only 25 per cent in 2001. In schools too the majority of ethnic minority pupils now go to schools where the white British are in a minority.

This is not the end of the world but they are trends that we should worry about and try to lean against. And that is even before considering the value divergence between those coming from more traditional, often Muslim, societies and the increasingly liberal British mainstream.

Answering May’s legitimate observation with celebratory rhetoric about multi-ethnic London (actually in many places a quite segregated city) is not good enough.

I think the second and maybe bigger reason for the shocked response to May’s speech is that she over-estimated her audience. She assumed that it is now possible to make a speech about immigration without having to prove you are not a xenophobe by first listing the historic benefits immigration has brought. She also assumed that the vast majority of British people are not angry nativists ready to turn on their minority neighbours if a politician talks about the problems created by large scale immigration. All the evidence suggests the average Brit has become more relaxed about difference and while wanting lower immigration feels no hostility to individual immigrants.

Immigration as a subject has always provoked political cross-dressing. People on the left who have inherited a pro mass immigration stance (largely because of the historic commitment to race equality) find themselves supporting big business’s interests in a plentiful supply of cheap and already-trained foreign labour. On the other hand Home Counties Tories with plummy accents talk earnestly about community cohesion in the inner city.

In the last few years Conservative immigration ministers have started to talk in explicitly social democratic terms about the economically regressive impact of large scale immigration. As a large scale immigration sceptic social democrat I welcome that and this approach now fits more easily into a wider social democratisation of Tory policy: living wage, training levy and so on.

The Tory claim to be the party of the working class, of all ethnicities, still seems to most people to be a bit of cheek. But it is certainly true of Tory immigration policy—as the chorus howling it down yesterday, led by the Institute of Directors, rather confirms.

David Goodhart is director of the Demos Integration Hub and editor at large of Prospect Magazine.