The view from Scotland. A review of Edinburgh Book Festival’s event – ‘Immigration: Does Britain Need More Inward Migration?’
David Goodhart and Sunder Katwala have spent most of the last few months gee hawing with one another over immigration, integration and the way forward in 21st century Britain. Most recently, they debated at the Bristol Festival of Ideas alongside Migrant Voice Director, Nazek Ramadan. They met again, this time at Edinburgh’s International Book Festival, to discuss these issues with journalist Lesley Riddoch and they surely put on a show.
Goodhart, Director of think-tank Demos, and his book The British Dream: Success and Failures of Post-War Immigration, have been making the rounds and ruffling feathers on the left and right since it was published in April. From the outset, Goodhart conceded that his comments were based on immigration being largely an English story, and solely looking at this statement from the numbers, he’s right. During his fifteen minute talk, he described himself as pro-immigrant but sceptical about large-scale immigration, keen to see high levels of permanent settlement tapered down but eager to keep ‘short-term movement’ open. The centrality of his thesis focussed on the ‘benefit’ of immigration not being apparent to Britons, the economy or to cultural solidity. He insisted that the immigration debate in Britain is post-racial, an assertion to which the audience took an audible exception.
Last week, the publicity of the 'Go Home' campaign - now decorating the inside of the UKBA offices in Glasgow - reached fever-pitch. Migrants, the public and Scottish politicians alike responded with anger and dissent that this message, racially-charged and countervailing to Scotland's experience and ethos, framed the face of the 'official' immigration portal.
This, as well as the 'Go Home Vans' in London, does much to undercut Goodhart's assertions that this debate has now moved beyond the dynamics of race. As has been noted, the UKBA hasn't been asking a lot of white Americans, Kiwis or Aussies for their papers. It seems they're only interested in investigating if your skin is a certain colour and your English is tinged with certain accents.
Goodhart concluded by offering vague panaceas, calling for a ‘Rolls Royce bureaucracy’ to lower net migration and stressing the importance of the Government meeting their target of lowering immigration to blunt the creeping influence of UKIP and further far-right rhetoric entering the national debate. As a segue, he stressed the need to learn from Scotland which he stated had a more optimistic national story than that of England, something integral to getting integration for all migrants right.
Katwala, Director of think-tank British Future, is a child of Britain’s ‘immigration story’ and has been a fair and thoughtful critic, keen to espouse his take on how integration should be promulgated to the front of immigration policy. He stressed that people want a conversation about immigration, not a lecture and urged Goodhart and the Government to give solutions, not just numbers. He expanded on his own personal story and allegiances and identity. However the central point he made was asking this: How do we challenge those who understand the positive impact of immigration to build consensus and trust and how do we tackle the tough economic questions associated with the issue? He too acknowledged, in a peripheral way, that the situation in Scotland was different to the rest of the UK. What can Scotland do to attract immigration, he asked.
And this crystallises the crux of the flaw in having an immigration debate, in Scotland, and further to that, without any migrant representation. It loses its resonance amid some very important dialogue. Context is king, as they say, and never more so than here.
Moderator, Lesley Riddoch broached the subject, asking in a roundabout way if anything, let alone something as mired as immigration, can be sorted from central government when we, in a day and age rapidly descending into more and more autonomous living, operate in an increasingly localised way. The response from the two participants was a resounding ‘absolutely’. “Most European countries have something akin to Ministries of Immigration” (though to delve deeper, one will find these aren’t exactly effective or in countries that experience huge fluctuations in net migration); “It must be dealt with centrally because questions around identity are national questions.” An interesting statement to be made…in Scotland (there’s a bit of a debate going on around that).
The London-centric tone of the debate only echoes the London-centric policy-shaping which has been happening by the UK Government and, consequently, leaving Scotland’s unique needs and position out in the cold. This was echoed recently when Scottish National Party MP Pete Wishart asked the UK Immigration Minister to list a single element of immigration policy that has helped Scotland address its own issues. The Minister, unsurprisingly, could not.
And what of the point of contention taken up by Goodhart and Katwala around the ‘myth of invitation’. This, according to Goodhart, happened during the 1940s and 1950s when citizens of the Commonwealth came over to Britain to fill acknowledged labour shortages and hence, felt invited. Not so, apparently.
In Scotland, the ‘invitation’ was less convoluted and more recent. Former First Minister Jack McConnell (a man I would gladly kiss on the lips, introduce to my Mother and thank profusely if I met him), responding to the specific immigration needs of Scotland when it was still a nascent matter, issued his own edict in the form of the Fresh Talent visa:
‘Scotland needs a higher growth rate as well as a growing population to create the conditions for its continued economic success. We want to encourage people with energy, ideas and a spirit of enterprise to come to Scotland’
One such person who responded to this call shared her story and it became the most powerful moment in the debate. A Brazilian woman, who recanted her own tale of running a successful theatre company in Edinburgh only to be denied a visa under the new immigration rules, spoke of the stress, the feeling of uncertainty, the lamentable use of tortuous rule changes and pointed hyperbole - this was her experience of the immigration system here. She eventually was accepted under another stream, but one can’t help but feel a step-function exists between those making immigration policy, those commenting on immigration and those who live this experience. If the aforementioned want a more holistic, national discussion on immigration, they should have the nous to invite the people who have lived the legacy of their punditry and practice. This isn’t a cloying, Universalist notion.
Migrants shouldn’t be included for tokenistic reasons but because the need to put a human face on immigration is sorely required to litmus test whether policies governing this are a) practicable and b) represent the ethos of Britain and the four nations of which it’s comprised. Scotland and Britain have long prided themselves on being great beacons of freedom and tolerance in the West. But a society is judged on how it treats the weakest of its number and in Britain ‘the weakest’ are those most vulnerable to exploitation; children and migrants.
It shows a poverty of prescience to state that immigration’s benefits can only be measured in an economic cost-benefit analysis and gold medals (as was intimated). The data, statistics and quantitative analysis presented in top-line form at the talk was enlightening and the debate was fair and even-handed. However, the lack of humanisation on the issue was jarring here as it is everywhere. One can hypothesize about why but I reckon the reason nobody wants migrants talking about immigration is the same as why criminals want fewer cops; it’s easier to get away with murder.