Immigration: Good for whom? BBC4 debate in Birmingham, 17 December 2013

I attended the BBC Radio 4 Debate on immigration, which took place at the Birmingham City University Conservatoire on 17 December 2013. The debate included Paul Collier (economist), David Goodhart (director of the DEMOS think tank and the former editor of Prospect); Nazek Ramadan (founder of the Migrant Voice newspaper) and Suzie Symes (director of the Immigration Museum on Princelet Street in London.

Before starting the debate, the host (Ritula Shah) did a straw poll of the audience (who seemed quite mixed in terms of race, gender and age), asking them if they thought immigration should be reduced; a quarter of the room raised their hands. Then she asked how many people thought that the level of immigration was fine as it was. Slightly more people raised their hands, but most did not. She then asked how many people didn’t care, and a few people raised their hands.  So this was an audience where some people felt immigration should be reduced,  but the majority of the audience did not hold a strong opinion.

Shah introduced the debate in relation to the lifting of the restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians, but also in terms of recent change of attitude on the liberal left, in which a previous pro-immigration orthodoxy was now being challenged – with Collier and Goodhart in particular as representatives of this changing perspective. Using the rhetoric of “brain drain”, Collier argued that skilled professionals in developing countries have a duty to stay at home and build their national economies, rather than emigrating for a better life. He called for restrictions on immigration from poorer countries, a restriction that should not exist for wealthier countries (which Nazek Ramadan argued created an unfair double standard in terms of mobility). Collier also pointed out that when societies become too diverse, it becomes difficult for people to integrate or cooperate socially – and so too much diversity would lead to a loss of common life. Goodhart made very similar arguments to Collier, saying that it is not possible to have a functioning welfare state in a diverse society (and evoking  Milton Friedman’s quote about how the US can have open borders or a welfare state but not both).  Robert Putnam’s  E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (2007) was cited as proving that immigration was bad for social cohesion; Putnam’s thinking generally seemed to be influential on both Goodhart and Collier, particularly the decline narrative around public disengagement, weakening social bonds and atrophying civic institutions outlined in Bowling Alone (2000).

Nazek Ramadan and Suzie Symes argued that, despite the pessimistic tone of much media coverage on immigration, most people in fact get on with each other, and communities are much more integrated than politicians and the media often admit (it is a truism that stories of successful integration sell fewer newspapers than moral panics). Suzie Symes also made the point that migrants benefit the economy and contribute more to the public purse than they receive – a point that was disputed by Goodhart.  She also argued that immigration is intrinsic to contemporary society, and said that we should be able to welcome accept this rather than perceiving it as a threat.

The audience response to the panel was mixed, although, arguably, more positive than negative. For example, there was an anecdote about a parent being told by a headteacher that there were no more places at the school because they were being reserved for Romanians and Bulgarians, who had extra language needs (which provoked a response from another audience member, who said there is no official policy about saving school places for migrants). Another audience member introduced himself as a member of the Polish community (which has existed in the West Midlands since the Second World War), and how, from his perspective the most recent wave of Polish immigration seems to  have struck the right balance of maintaining British and Polish cultural identities, which had proven more difficult for previous generations of Polish immigrants.

In response, Goodhart claimed several times throughout the evening that the audience was unrepresentative of British society. This raises questions about what Goodhart might see a representative audience to be: more homogeneously white, or anti-immigrant, for example? Does a representative British public exist, and how much is this in fact a media construct (the anxious, resentful “silent majority” who feels aggrieved at immigration, cynical about politics, and in danger of voting for UKIP instead of one of the mainstream political parties)?  Furthermore, what does this mean in a multicultural city such as Birmingham?  As the 2015 election approaches, questions about who the public is, and who is seen to belong to it, will only become more important.

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