5 September 2023
Immigration, Public Opinion & the Polls
Suella Braverman in Washington.
By Lynda Goetz
Suella Braverman’s recent speeches have met with a great deal of hostility from the press, from charities and from many politicians. What, though, is the reaction on the street? Is she really the racist bigot and inhuman politician lacking in all compassion or is she, in reality, just expressing what an awful lot of people think but no longer dare say out loud? Her argument in Washington that the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees needed reform, as it was created for a different age, prompted some severe criticism in the media, with the chief executive of the charity ‘Freedom from Torture’ in an article for Politics.co.uk, calling it reckless and damaging, whilst others such as Exeter’s Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw, suggested ignorance and a lack of understanding about the realities of life as an LGBTQ+ in certain parts of the world. Sir Elton John beat the same drum.
As the child of refugees herself, it is clear that Ms Braverman is not unsympathetic to the difficulties of those attempting to achieve a new life in a different country or those fleeing persecution. Nor is she unaware of the welcome Britain has offered over the years to those starting afresh here. However, she is surely not wrong to point out that there is a difference between ‘persecution’ and ‘discrimination’ and that this is a small island which is quite possibly in danger of being overwhelmed by a massive influx of refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants who are putting an enormous burden on the entire existing UK population? Irrespective of whether you are a benefit claimant or a taxpayer, the services provided for the citizens of the country are creaking under the strain of the huge numbers of people who have come here, either legally or illegally, from elsewhere. Schools, health services and housing are all public services struggling to cope with those not born here who now have a call on the public purse. Where are the funds to come from?
An old argument has always been that we need immigration to promote growth. This argument has recently come under attack from some quarters, but the statistics are of course complex and it is difficult to get to the bottom of what they actually mean. At the end of the day, how you use the available statistics probably depends on which side of the fence you are. As has been pointed out before, a lot of the arguments are political rather than economic. The ‘I’ newspaper produced an interesting fact check by Molly Blackall back in May of this year, but whether or not the conclusion reached by think tank British Future that these days “the majority of people now see migration as necessary to help the recovery. Fewer than one in four believe immigration damages economic recovery by taking jobs away from people already living here,” is a true reflection of British attitudes to untrammelled immigration is hard to gauge.
The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has also reiterated the Tory pledge to ‘do whatever is necessary’ to stop illegal migration and although he has not gone as far as the Home Secretary, it is clear that he must have approved her speech in Washington. The problem is that it is not just illegal migration, but legal migration which is increasing and although some of it has been caused by the situations in Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine, which are one-offs, there is little doubt that the current situation is leading to intolerable pressures in some areas of the country. When we have our own homeless, how is it that illegal immigrants have a right to be put up in hotels ‘of at least a minimum of three-stars’* (and have indeed taken over 4 and 5-star hotels in some places) when British citizens who are homeless for whatever reason can be left on the streets? You do not need to be lacking in compassion to feel that something is not quite right here.
As has been pointed out on numerous occasions, this country has a superb record in welcoming those who come here through legal routes or have a genuine need for asylum. The very fact that we have a Prime Minister and an energy secretary (Claire Coutinho) of Indian origin; a business secretary (Kemi Badenoch) of Nigerian origin; a foreign secretary who mother was from Sierra Leone and Suella Braverman herself whose parents came from Kenya and Mauritius, must surely be testament to the way it is possible to get ahead in the UK whatever your ethnic origins or skin colour. The accusation that Ms Braverman wants to ‘pull up the drawbridge’ seems disingenuous and petty, although accusations that her posturing may be more political than conviction-based may possibly contain a grain of truth. Nonetheless, we are a small, densely populated island. At what point does the influx of outsiders become detrimental rather than beneficial?
The real question here may well be cultural rather than political or economic. There is almost certainly a tipping point at which the increased population puts more pressure on infrastructure than it brings benefit in terms of economic input, growth and tax revenue, but there is also the fundamental issue of identity. As a country we are a mixture of different peoples. Over the centuries we have absorbed many different incomers and there are probably few families who can’t point to at least one foreign ancestor. As Suella Braverman points out though, this influx has been a trickle and absorption has been gradual. What is happening now is akin to a torrent, or in her words a potential ‘hurricane’. Instead of being absorbed to the point where the incomers see themselves as British first (even if they maintain elements of their own cultural identities), there is the risk that the numbers are too great for real integration. (I will not even begin to attempt to address here the social scientists’ arguments about the differences between ‘integration’ and ‘assimilation’ and the rights and wrongs or historical implications of these different approaches. That is an entire subject in its own right.)
This is not a uniquely British problem of course. In Italy the island of Lampedusa with a population of 6,000 has seen recent numbers of illegal immigrants reach 10,000. In the States, San Francisco has a massive problem with violence which is a direct result of the huge numbers of immigrants. In Sweden, likewise. In Germany too the rise of the right-wing AfD is an almost direct result of the problems arising from massive immigration. In France there are ghettos around a number of sizeable cities, including places like Nice, where North Africans have congregated. Perhaps one of the things which we in the West need to understand is how our liberal approach is not always regarded with admiration, but contempt. It will be exploited, of course, but we should not necessarily expect gratitude for our generosity and help. It is this attitude which can lead to situations where illegal immigrants are taking court action regarding the conditions in which they are housed, for example. Would these really be the actions of people who have fled persecution and are grateful to have been given sanctuary? It must be right to be able to question these things.
Given that the problem of movement of people is not going to go away and is indeed likely to get worse as those in dictatorships or countries with extreme political or climate problems leave to seek somewhere else to live, this is an issue over which our political leaders are going to need to put their heads together. An attempt by Rishi Sunak recently to put illegal migration at the top of the agenda for the European Political Community summit starting today in Grenada, met with resistance from the hosts, Spain, although he did have some support from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Emmanuel Macron of France. As things stand, AI remains top of the agenda, but migration remains a threat not to be ignored, however compassionate we all like to consider ourselves. It is one that cannot be put on the back burner and like climate change will also influence outcomes in the polls, not just here, but throughout the Western world.
*according to a Home Office contract issued in February and applicable to some, although apparently not all, contractors.