The ugly economics of immigration

Paul Kingsnorth
4 November 2008

Paul Kingsnorth (Oxford, author): In a recent, and very interesting, post here on OK, in which he dissects Enoch Powell’s views on ‘cultural essentialism’, Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society first agrees with me and then takes me to task about a recent blog post in which I addressed the impact of mass immigration on population pressure in the UK.

Here’s what Sunder wrote

The impact of immigration is back in Britain's headlines. The new Minister Phil Woolas taking a good deal of flak for talking about the need to restrict immigration in a downturn. Woolas may have got the tone wrong, but a recession will surely affect immigration flows and government policy too. Picking up on this, the writer Paul Kingsnorth, a progressive critic of globalisation, challenges the idea that the correct left-liberal position is "open borders". He is right. Social democrats take a liberal position on cultural diversity, but need to manage migration so that it does not exacerbate inequalities. We need a politics of solidarity to protect standards and avoid exploitation at the bottom. However Kingsnorth's quest for a progressive Englishness could be fatally undermined by his ugly language of "shipping in millions of cheap foreigners ripe for exploitation in order to keep the markets happy". The language of swamping continues to derail a rational migration debate. 

I wrote my blog as a response to Phil Woolas’s pleasing recognition that something needs to be done about population pressure in the UK – the first time any Labour government minister has even recognised this as an issue. Our population is predicted to rise from its current level of about 60 million to up to 77 million by the middle of the century if current trends continue. The main driver of this rise is immigration, which last year alone brought two thirds of a million people to the country. In my view, a population increase of this kind is unsustainable, whatever the root cause; I was trying to explain why.

More widely, though, I was tackling what I believe is the left’s general confusion over immigration. It’s a confusion with Sunder demonstrates well in his response to me. The generalised leftist attitude to immigration seems to be based on a kind of vague equation. Racists don’t like immigration, it runs, and therefore people who don’t like immigration are racists. Ergo, we are in favour of all and any immigration, because we don’t like racists. Furthermore, we are in favour of ‘social justice’ and international solidarity, and immigration is some kind of demonstration of that, in some way, probably. So it’s all good.

This can lead to kneejerk responses of the sort Sunder employs here (it’s especially noticeable as the rest of his article is so thoughtful). Suddenly, an economic critique of the politics of labour exploitation has become the ‘ugly language’ of ‘swamping.’ Did I mention ‘swamping’? I did not. Was my language ‘ugly’? It was not. In fact, I was very clear about the need to avoid both ugly language and ugly politics.  

What I was actually doing was attacking a very ugly economic system. The reason that immigration has reached unprecedented levels over the last decade can be summed up in one word: globalisation. Immigration, as any politician will tell you, is all about ‘the economy.’ In other words, it is about cheap labour. Everyone involved in the debate is startlingly open about this. I was astonished, as I wrote in my blog, to hear even the head of the Immigration Advisory Service arguing in support of mass immigration on the grounds that British people won’t pick vegetables or debone fish, and that therefore we need foreigners to do it for us.  

Here’s what’s happening: Britain needs cheap, easily manipulated, easily exploitable labour to fuel its economy. Along with debt, this seems to be the reason we have been so economically ‘successful’ (cough cough) over the last decade. It is also the reason we have mass immigration. We are, to put it crudely, shipping in millions of unskilled people to do our shitty jobs for us. At the same time, we think nothing of shipping in skilled people to run, for example, our health service, because we have failed to train enough health professionals of our own – thus depriving poor countries of essential people who could genuinely contribute to alleviating poverty and suffering where it is most acute.  

And the left supports it all. This seems to me to be a giant con trick. ‘Progressive’ politics has, in the name of social justice, internationalism and anti-racism, swallowed neoliberalism’s bait and now finds itself supporting the ‘flexible labour market’ for which multinational corporations have been calling for years. In the process, it has alienated its original base of support, the British working class, who are currently turning to the BNP in such record numbers that unions are seeking the right to ban BNP members from their ranks and the Labour party is fretting at the possibility of a clutch of far right MEPs being elected next year. Why would people vote for a party as obviously poisonous as the BNP? Simple: they are increasingly concerned about the impact of mass immigration, and the left, who are still flapping around using the language of ‘swamping’ whenever anyone raises the issue, are unable to address their concerns. Labour knows this very well, which is why they have started furiously back-pedalling on immigration, in some cases using some genuinely ‘ugly’ language.

Like Sunder, I am in favour of immigration. I think it makes the country a better place. I am, however, in favour of controlled immigration; immigration at a level society can cope with sustainably – which means a level lower than at present. Those who are against this need to explain how we are going to accommodate a vast population increase over the next few decades. They need to explain where all the new houses, roads, schools, hospitals, power plants and reservoirs are going to come from, and where they are going to go – and what impact that will have on our environment. They need to explain how we will deal with the very real social pressures, and the cultural strain and resentment, this will cause. They need to explain how we can fend off the rising far right challenge it will provoke. They need to explain how we can meet our climate change targets with an extra 15 million people here. They need to explain how it is justified to ride roughshod over majority opinion in all sections of British society who do not like any of this at all.  

They also need to explain how bending over backwards to accommodate all of this will help the causes of social justice, anti-racism, solidarity and environmental protection which they profess to hold dear. It seems to me that they will hinder every one of them. It also seems to me that we would all be better off questioning the cruel economic assumptions which underly the case for mass immigration, rather than continuing to feed the corporate machine in the mistaken belief that it is somehow a humanitarian act. If we could start to do that, we could maybe start to tackle some of what is really ‘ugly’ about this situation. And it isn’t my language. 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData