Immigration is now the top issue in British politics, though laughably some nativists still claim that politicians refuse to talk about it. Polls show that it has been one of the biggest issues of public concern for many years - indeed, some suggest that the level of concern is independent of actual levels of immigration. Now that the economy is dropping as a political issue, in spite of Labour's attempt to stoke up anxiety, immigration is challenged only by the NHS in public concern. But to what extent is the public worry about immigration a fantasy, a displacement of anxiety about other changes in our society, and how much does it reflect real stress?
The answer to that matters, or it should. Let us put to one side the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron's reason for wanting to limit freedom of movement in the EU: that the British people are his boss. In other words he doesn't care whether the fear is based on substance, he just listens to what people tell him. We can imagine Winston Churchill in 1940 consulting opinion polls as to whether to sue for peace with Hitler or fight on alone. Leaders should lead, not follow. If the anxiety over immigration is fantasy, our politicians should publicly challenge it; if it is based on real stress, steps should be taken to manage that stress.
Unfortunately the quality of debate is very poor. The anti camp are more interested in fanning the flames than examining the real issues, for example by stoking fears that the country will be "swamped". And yet the migration liberals seem to talk past them and stick to generalities: that migration is generally a good thing in a modern society. And even some who attempt to see both sides, like this article from John Harris in the Guardian, are often unsatisfactory. In spite of the article's encouraging title "Don’t dismiss public fears about migration as mere bigotry" it turns out that it is largely based on the author's experience in the East Anglian town of Wisbech, which does little to explain feelings elsewhere in the country. And he swallows at face value Labour's apology over letting in EU migrants from new members in the early 2000s: this is far from a self-evident policy mistake, even in hindsight.
A welcome breath of fresh air is this article from this week's Economist. This comes from an unmistakably liberal standpoint, but in the best traditions of that newspaper, it is a balanced survey of the evidence - so much better than that paper's overage of British educational policy. This brings out how much anti-immigration feeling is a sort of displacement of other anxieties, personal and societal, stoked up by the country's "raucous" press. A telling fact is that anti-immigrant feeling is often highest in communities relatively unaffected by immigration, such as the site of Ukip's recent landslide by election victory, Clacton.
But there are real pressures too. The starkest are in East Anglian and Lincolnshire agricultural communities (like Wisbech). Here unscrupulous gangmasters ship in thousands of workers form abroad to work in the fields for a pittance. They destroy job prospects for the less-skilled locals; crammed into to houses in ordinary residential areas they overload local services and undermine neighbourliness. They are a lawless other, a truly ugly phenomenon, with the workers themselves as much victims as the blighted communities. Then there are northern and midland towns where Pakistani and other Asian communities have not integrated. In Birmingham conservative Muslims have tried to take over state schools to run them on a decidedly illiberal principles. Confused youngsters may be radicalised and converted to terrorist activities. Such British icons as poppy day, to commemorate the sacrifices of the armed forces, may be viewed with hostility. And there are many other such problems: Somali children failing to take to British education; Albanian and Kosovar crime syndicates; rich foreigners buying up London luxury flats; and so on.
But what is so striking is how diverse these problems are. Each of the solutions advocated by anti-immigrants would only deal with a small part of the problem. Leave the EU? Well that might help with the EU agricultural workers in East Anglia - but there would also be collateral damage to the farming industry. It wouldn't help with second and third generation Pakistani residents. A points system for immigrants so that only those with needed skills or money can come in? We already have this for non-EU migrants, and it is far from clear that the collateral damage to businesses and universities is worth any benefits. And it doesn't help with those London flats.
Surely what is needed is not so much these drastic, strategic national solutions, but a number tactical, local solutions - and some international ones too. We need to crack down on the gangmasters and the sort of exploitation that they perpetrate; that does not require EU treaty changes. We need better engagement with and among longer-standing immigrant communities - including better teaching about Islam in our schools. This may mean bypassing the paternalistic "community leaders" in many cases. Serious action is needed to root out prejudice in our police forces. The paternalistic Labour one-party states that predominate in so many of the country's urban local authorities needs to be replaced by something more pluralist and democratic. And so it goes on.
But liberals must also confront two strategic problems: housing and the welfare state. A common complaint is that the number of immigrants is putting pressure on limited housing resources, which is depriving poorer people (of all races, it might be added) of access to decent housing. Immigration is by no means the only reason why housing is under pressure - but there must be some substance to this. An obvious answer is to build more houses - but that will often mean blotting out nice bits of green countryside, especially in urban greenbelts. My personal view is that the rising population is driven by demographics - younger immigrants are being sucked in as older people leave the workforce to retire. As such limiting numbers of immigrants will create worse pressures elsewhere. So we badly need a decent housing strategy. But I also think that a lot of the pressure on green land comes from our dysfunctional private sector developers, exploiting English fantasies of the sort of home they want to make quick profits. In fact dense, urban housing is much more sustainable in the long-term, even if it is expensive in the short term. Also it would be good to revive local economies that are currently weak, for example in many northern cities, and where housing pressure is much lower. But some loss of greenbelt is inevitable. This isn't easy, but we need to put more of the political class's creative energies into this, learning from past failures.
Welfare is more awkward. Unlike most of our European neighbours, Britain does not operate insurance-based welfare. We run according a more socialist ideal based on need. This is exemplified best by the NHS - but similar thinking runs through the whole system. With an insurance system, even if state-run, it is much easier to control access, and reduce access to recent immigrants. We don't really know how much our open access to welfare encourages poorer migrants. But it is the poorer migrants that create most of the difficult issues. There may be much mythology in the idea of welfare tourism - but there is also plenty of anecdotal evidence that our welfare system attracts migrants to Britain rather than France, say. Should we start to move towards the insurance model? This is what Labour are suggesting by re-establishing a "contributory principle". I have to say that I worry about this. It's a neat way to keep new, unskilled migrants away without burdensome immigration systems - but I suspect there would be a lot of collateral damage to longer-term residents. We have taken our welfare state in that direction for a reason - and it is an attractive idea. There may be other reasons to move towards and insurance model (which, after all was the idea of the original Beveridge system) in times when tax revenues do not flow so freely. I don't have a view on this - but like housing it needs to be a central area of political discourse.
And my conclusion? High levels of immigration are a fact of life for Britain. Crude regulation, or drastic measures like leaving the EU, will create more problems than they solve. But there are some real pressures that our political class should address. And there are many problems, not one.