Sunday, November 18, 2007

Immigration and society

I have never been convinced that there is a particularly acute case for or against immigration on economic grounds. I would expect that the labour market's gain and the congestion problems would largely offset one another. This appears to be supported by the statistical work on the subject. Mike Denham links to a National Institute of Economic and Social Research study that found that immigration increased GDP by 3 per cent, it increased population by 3.8 per cent - GDP per capita fell a little. I don't think either side can honestly claim that the issue of immigration can be comprehensively settled by an appeal to economic logic alone.

My concerns over immigration are, instead, philosophically conservative. My premise is that a decent, peaceful and liberal society is a rarity whose defence is constantly in doubt. The libertarian approach to the pursuit of liberty - of trying to define and create the most pure liberal society possible - I sympathise with but regard as fundamentally mistaken. It leads them to prioritise transient victories, laws and constitutions.

Instead, I see the most important challenge as creating a nation able and willing to sustain and defend a liberal society. This project is always difficult due to a number of necessary structural weaknesses in liberal democracy. The logic of collective action demonstrates how minorities can capture the state thanks to the difficulty of mobilising a majority. Liberal values can be limiting when facing enemies facing no such constraints.

The challenge of defending Western values is currently particularly difficult thanks to relativism. Dalrymple sets out why the challenge of confronting threats to Western values is particularly acute:

"When faced by people who, quite mistakenly and with a combination of staggering ignorance and arrogance, believe themselves to be in possession of a truth that justifies almost any atrocity committed, if not by them, exactly, then by those whom they have indoctrinated, modern Western Europeans do not know how to react. They have either forgotten what it is to believe in anything, to such an extent that they cannot really believe that anyone else believes in anything, either; or their memories of belief are of belief in something so horrible—Communism, for example, or Nazism—that they no longer believe that they have the right to pass judgment on anything. This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction, brought about preferably at your own expense. First, you can't take them seriously; second, you suspect they might in any case be right."

Our weakness is immediately apparent if you look at the craven response by our media and political establishment to the Danish Cartoons Crisis. Massive and threatening protests across Europe and the Islamic world attacked freedom of speech and pronounced themselves grievously offended by cartoons published in a small newspaper in a small European country. Not a single British newspaper printed the cartoons and Jack Straw praised their cowardice as 'sensitivity'. Our most important values were coming under attack by those who hoped to use the threat of violence to intimidate others, to destroy free speech without a law in sight. Our supposedly fearless media was not willing to join Jyllands-Posten and a handful of other European newspapers in the trenches and make such a simple statement of collective defiance of the Islamist threats.

We need to be concerned about our ability to defend our values. I am often worried by the way integration is usually described: as a policy intended to ensure "community cohesion". That misses the point. You could theoretically create a very cohesive society, at least in the short term, by clamping down upon freedom of speech and just having everyone shut up about their differences. I don't think this would work in the long-term as a society lacking the catharsis of free speech would develop greater lingering resentments. More importantly, it implies sacrificing one of the West's most important values. Defending those values is more important than pursuing community cohesion for its own sake.

Importing huge numbers of people every year who often do not share those values is a very risky thing to do. 4.6 per cent of the British population have arrived here in the last ten years. A great many of those have arrived with values incompatible with the Western tradition that Britain is a part of. Unlike Iranian immigrants to America British immigrants from Pakistan, for example, are not drawn particularly disproportionately from a Westernised elite. Compare immigration to Britain now with previous waves of immigration that were smaller (the Huguenots were about one per cent of the British population) and didn't have the same clash of values and it is hard to see a parallel for the kind of challenge we already face. Further immigration at the same rate might make it utterly impossible to defend liberal values whose defence is already looking fragile.

An undermining of common values walks hand in hand with an undermining of national identity and the willingness to compromise. Compromise has to be based upon a certain measure of trust that your moderation will not be taken advantage of. Building trust is more difficult in a society where people cannot call upon shared experience and history. Integrating immigrants into that shared experience is harder when there are so many of them that they are unlikely to see an existing community of which they can form a part. Politics will become uglier and commerce more bureaucratic if people do not trust each other. A fractious politics could create differences of values even if they don't already exist.

Even leaving aside differences of values creating a nation where people trust each other enough to work and live together happily is a real challenge. I have no idea how we might go about creating such a spirit in a nation with so many new entrants. Anyone who supports immigration on the scale of the last ten years without a really good idea of how they'll turn the new population into a nation seems, to me, to be engaged in an exercise of utter irresponsibility.

So, to conclude, my problem with immigration is not economic. My biggest concern is not that immigrants will take jobs from indigenous Britons (although we should be very concerned about the impact on the lower paid) but that it will lead to the slow death of the values that define what is best in our society. That we will become more divided and untrusting.

I must, finally, comment briefly on whether we can limit immigration. I think we can. I've seen two suggestions of reasons why that might not be possible and both seem deeply spurious. First, Chris Dillow posits that we can't because our coatline is so much longer than the US-Mexico border that they're proposing to build a fence across. This rather misses the point that we already have a bloody great moat. As an island nation it is almost uniquely easy for us to defend our borders. Second, others suggest that international obligations prevent us controlling immigration. This just doesn't fit the numbers as those granted asylum and EU migrants combined are under 40 per cent of the last decade's inflow. Intra-EU migration is also less important with respect to the values clash as immigrants from European countries are more likely to share Western values like free speech.

As such, I think we can and should limit immigration in order to defend the fragile social order - already under severe strain - that has made Britain so successful, so worth migrating to.


Anonymous said...

very very good stuff right, thoughtfull, intelligent and informed this blog at its best. a few thoughts

a) it's importnat to realize that for the rest of Britain high skilled immigration is with few exceptions a big plus- the reverse is true for low skilled immigration so this is alos an argument for big discrimination in immigration appliciants in favour of the better off and highly skilled.

b) The validity of your points on immigrations sans EU and aselyum conventions does not of course mean we could not do someting about them as well - the latter of course with less disruption than the former but we could still do something.

c) if a corporation can make deciiosn on the basis of it's shareholders i don't see why states shouldn't for thier citizens.


Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,

Just a couple of comments about your post. You make the argument that immigration from outside the EU is detrimental to the UK because immigrants from these countries do not share the same values as Westerners. However, speaking as a non-EU citizen who tried (and failed) to get a job in the UK, it is really tough for your average Pakistani, Chinese or Brazilian to get a work permit unless he/she is a talented entrepreneur, investment banker, genetic engineer or surgeon. In other words, immigrants from these countries would be drawn from the educated upper and middle classes, those more prone to westernisation and liberal ideals (come on, you and I know countless examples of these kinds of people).

Think of the countless non-EU students at uni who were desperate to get a City job because this would be their only way to stay in the UK after graduation, and you should know what I'm talking about.

As for your example of Pakistani immigrants to the UK, I think you'd find that those who cause a lot of problems are second generation British Pakistanis who were born in the UK. This population dates from the 1960's which was a time when British immigration rules were more lax, and when any villager from Kashmir could enter the country. With work permit issues, things are a lot more difficult now. In fact, if you think back to the Islamic societies at uni, they seemed to be dominated by British Muslims, with foreign students like many of our friends being less inclined to actively participate in said societies.

Finally, using immigration figures over the past ten years to show that a sizeable proportion of immigrants come from outside the EU is slightly iffy. You have to make a distinction between the years before 2004 and the years after 2004. 2004 was when the Eastern European countries joined the EU and a huge pool of cheap labour was created. Prior to this, employers could apply for work permits for Filippino, African or Bangladeshi immigrants and legitimately justify this by stating there was a skills shortage within EU. Now that cheap Poles, Czech and Hungarian workers exist, I think you'd find that applying for work permits for low-skilled immigrants from the developing world is far far harder. Hence in the years to come, it is likely that immigration from the developing world is likely to be dominated by the skilled i-bankers, management consultants and lawyers who have been able to jump through hoops to get a work permit.


tristantzara said...

You would have liked the Cambridge IV final (universal bonfire of border controls).

I think we have a lot of work to do to build a coherent nation out a multiculturalist policy that has yielded benefits for 70% but alienated 30%. I think we have our work even more cut out to build a British nation, rather than to refocus on the constituent nations' internal identities. I think incorporating that into a broader sense of European fellowship may be impossible.

But we need these wider forms of identity. Oxford isn't allowed to discriminate against Slovakian applicants because they aren't British. When middle britain realises their kids are finding it harder to get into Oxford because some more driven Slovakian students are there instead, unless we build a sense of European fellowship [and start learning European languages, so British students actually want to go to the Sorbonne], things will get poisonous.

James Higham said...

The challenge of defending Western values is currently particularly difficult thanks to relativism.

Got it in one, Matt though I was less gracious about it.

Wolfie said...

Very good post with a well constructed argument. Somehow I suspect this situation is not going to end well, the numbers coming are too high for the infrastructure to cope with and too many are not willing to integrate or respect our values as you say.

kheng, you present a valid but one-sided argument. Poorly educated illegal entrants and the families of the legal are putting considerable strain on the ability of the economy to absorb the costs.

Anonymous said...


Economics is totally out of scope of Matt's argument. The whole point of his article is that an influx of migrants will change the demographics of the UK (i.e. more Muslims), thus leading to social tension. I'm demonstrating why the predicted future influx of Muslim migrants is unlikely to materialise.

The economic impact of migration is an interesting issue, but unrelated to this topic.

Anonymous said...

Also, it's worth noting that not all immigration from the Third World comprises of Muslims. A Hindu from India, a Buddhist from China, an Orthodox Christian from Russia and a Catholic from Brazil would all be surprised at the idea that they somehow contribute to the 'Islamisication' of the UK.

In fact, given that post 2004 (i.e. post EU expansion), most migrants have been from countries like Poland, which are Christian and socially conservative, you may find that these new migrants have more in common with you than you realise.

Matthew Sinclair said...


On a couple of your points:

"Finally, using immigration figures over the past ten years to show that a sizeable proportion of immigrants come from outside the EU is slightly iffy."

You're right but the latest ONS figures show a similar pattern. Most immigration is still non-EU and asylum seekers are still a very small number.

"In other words, immigrants from these countries would be drawn from the educated upper and middle classes, those more prone to westernisation and liberal ideals (come on, you and I know countless examples of these kinds of people)."

I thought this for a while. You've got to realise that high-skilled migrants are also a small part of the total immigrant numbers. There's a good blog on that here:

Vino S said...

Unsurprisingly, I disagree with you. You are pointing at aggregate immigration figures (allegedly 4.6% of the population came here over the past decade) and then jumping from there to concerns about Muslims.

Two points:

1. A lot of those immigrants that make up the 4.6% are actually Eastern Europeans, Hindu Indians, African Christians etc

2. Many of the most violent Islamic fundamentalists were actually born here so, unless your 'immigration' policy actually consists of stripping people of Pakistani origin of their legal right to reside in the UK then I don't see how 'immigration control' has anything to say about how to deal with the ideological challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalists.

Have posted a bit more about this on my blog, but thought I would also take the opportunity to ask what you think of the 5m or so people born in the UK who now live abroad? Were they as wrong to emigrate as you think people are to immigrate here? Or is it one rule for one set of people and another rule for another set?

Matthew Sinclair said...


The "stopping migration is, itself, illiberal" point you've posted on your blog is the libertarian response I discussed in my blog. Maximising liberty over the medium to long term is not always a matter of choosing the most liberal solution right now.

On the other point on your blog, that I want an aggregeate limit. You're putting words in my mouth. In fact, my entire post is premised on not controlling immigration from within the EU.

I never said that all of those 4.6% created a values clash. You're setting up a complete straw man.

To see second generation immigrants as unconnected from first generation immigrants seems rather artificial. If we don't have a good idea of how we're going to stop the second generation's radicalisation happening again why are we allowing the number of expected second generation immigrants to rise so dramatically?

Vino S said...

Matt, you are hypothesising that what maximising liberty in the long-term is limiting liberty now. That is a hypothesis that is contestable. And, as I said earlier, I do think that it is a key liberal value to believe in freedom of movement.

Matt, I mentioned the 4.6% figure because you quote it. If not all that 4.6% are the cause of your concern, then why did you use that figure? I think you are eliding two different points by looking at aggregate immigration and then by going on about Muslims (or, to be more accurate, immigrants from Muslim-majority countries).

With regard to the point about the children of immigrants, I was pointing out that to talk about immigration policy _is to miss the point_ about how to deal with Islamic fundamentalists who have been born in the UK. Yes, obviously, the more immigration there is - the more people there will be who will be children of immigrants. But that doesn't change the fact that eliding Islamic fundamentalism with the question of immigration per se is wrong since (a) most immigrants aren't Islamic fundamentalists and (b) many islamic fundamentalists aren't immigrants.

I hope that you do not think that the way to deal with Islamic fundamentalism among individuals at the moment is to somehow set up special rules regarding the children of Pakistani immigrants. That seems to be discriminatory on the groups of national origin.

Vino S said...

Matt, further to my last post, this is the quote from your article that uses the 4.6% figure:

4.6 per cent of the British population have arrived here in the last ten years. A great many of those have arrived with values incompatible with the Western tradition

You are thus eliding the 4.6% figure with your views on people who have values 'incompatible' with European traditions. If half of that 4.6% are themselves Europeans (or white South Africans or people from the Americas or Australia) then it seems rather strange to use that statistic in conjunction with any concerns re Muslims.

Matthew Sinclair said...


There's nothing wrong with that use of the statistic at all. "A great many" of the 4.6% are from countries outside of the Western tradition.

On the last point in your first comment I'm not sure what exactly you're getting at. The policy I'm arguing for is tighter control of non-EU immigration.

I think you're rather abusing the word "elide" to make your points sound more profound than they are. The clash of values I'm talking about is connected intimately with immigration, even if not with immigrants. More immigration will increase its scale. Second or first generation is actually irrelevant.

Vino S said...

The fact is, though, Matt, that the 4.6% does not relate to the figures for immigration from muslim-majority countries. To put them in the same paragraph is misleading.

With regard to non-EU migration, I do think that to argue for control of this on the grounds of disagreement with Muslims is rather strange. A restriction on non-EU migration would affect Hindu Indians and Christian Africans as much as it would Muslim Arabs, Muslim Kurds, Muslim Pakistanis etc. In fact, it would affect Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs equally. As such, it is discrimination based on national origin. Perhaps that is justifiable, but it is discriminatory none-the-less.

To justify restrictions on all non-EU immigrants based on your view of Muslims seems rather odd. In fact, i would argue that it is racially discriminatory. After all, you are treating - as i said above - Hindu Asians, Muslim Arabs or Pakistanis and African Christians the same. The only thing all 3 categories have in common is that they are dark-skinned. You start off with an arguement about the culture and beliefs common in Muslim-majority countries but you then use it to justify policies that would also discriminate against two of the main non-Muslim non-white immigrant groups.

Matthew Sinclair said...

On the statistics. You're arguing that people can't connect the two sentences and see my meaning? This blog is written for an educated audience.

I don't think that the values clashes are restricted to Muslims. They're not true of all communities but there is the potential in immigration on too high a scale from any country outside the Western tradition in my opinion.

I think we saw that with the problems with the Sikh play a few years back. Sikhs are generally a well integrated community but there were clearly problems there. Also, there have been problems with black animists. None of these are nearly as severe as are the current problems with Muslim immigration but I think that is largely a numbers issue. Immigrants are far easier to integrate when they are moving here in manageable numbers. That's why if immigration's problems are more than proportional to its scale.

Vino S said...

As I said on my blog, there is a case for the state restricting immigration if it feels that it is necessary to do so. But, I think we are starting from different basal points. I am starting from the idea that people have certain freedoms (incl. freedom of movement) and, in order to restrict them, there has to be a clear reason to do so (e.g. high unemployment or the individual doesn't have skills for shortage occupations etc). You seem to be starting from the idea that immigration is a bad idea - not a view i share.

Another thing, regardless of the rights and wrongs of whether a state _should_ be very harsh on those merely wanting to legally immigrate - the fact is that, in a world with large and growing inequalities, there will always be a wish by some people to illegally migrate, especially if their situation is very bad in their home countries. I am sure you would do the same if you were in their position. I am not sure a 'fortress Britain' or a 'fortress Europe' approach is best.

Back on the topic of legal immigration, you forget the British govt has passed several immigration acts since 1948 - all of which make it much harder to move to the UK than was the case. It seems to me strange to demand still more restrictions.

As this press release from the IPPR suggests limiting non-EU immigration would actually involve some quite controversial decisions. About 100,000 skilled workers are permitted to emigrate - would you reduce that? Would you eliminate the spousal unification criteria (about 50,000)? Or would you turn away refugees even if their cases have been accepted by the Home Office (25,000)? All this strikes me as rather harsh and possibly somewhat inhumane.