Perhaps more than any other political issue, immigration has shaped western political discourse for at least the last decade. It was the decisive factor in the Brexit vote, arguably catalysed the rise of Donald Trump to the Oval Office, and has undoubtedly been crucial in the rise of populism across Europe. No other political question is more sensitive to issues of identity. Is one a nationalist or an internationalist? A believer in putting one’s nation first, or a global citizen? Sentiments on migration are more often than not a proxy for political philosophy.
The debate has also been fierce in academia. A series of scholars (for example Harold Wilensky) have contended that higher levels of immigration lead to lower national solidarity, and as such a reduced desire from citizens to contribute to the public good. While empirical findings are very much mixed on this contention, the evidence is far stronger when it comes to the link between multiculturalism and social solidarity. Societies with higher levels of ethnic and cultural diversity seem to experience lower social and national solidarity.
There are thought to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, that multiculturalism institutionalises ethnocultural divides between the indigenous population and immigrants decreasing the willingness of one to contribute to the other (Barry, 2002). This suggests that a combination of multiculturalism and a high level of migration can be particularly damaging for social solidarity. Secondly, that it cements in the mind of citizens that national identity is under threat. Academics often point to the United States, which, along with having a much-reduced welfare state in comparison to European states, also has a very high level of ethnic diversity. Given the historical issues at stake in the United States, these ethnic divisions can also be considered cultural. Importantly, this debate is far from settled. However, from the evidence at hand, it does seem that multiculturalism can have a reduced effect on social solidarity, and thus the public’s willingness to pay taxes and take part in civil society.
At first glance, this seems to be primarily an issue for the left. After all, this divergence suggests there is a direct trade-off between a progressive conception of economic justice and support for multiculturalism. Yet, this should also concern conservatives. After all, few conservatives these days seek to dramatically roll back the frontiers of the state. Economic pragmatism is the guiding principle of most modern-day conservatives, and the current government is no different. Even for those who favour a libertarian approach, do they really want the state to be rolled back on the basis of a reduction in social solidarity? Most importantly of all, not only does the welfare state and other redistributive systems rely on a sense of national solidarity but so too does our civil society and democracy. While these may not require financial commitment from the public, they do require a level of moral and social commitment.
David Goodhart, author of The Road to Somewhere, and former editor of Prospect magazine is someone who has been alive to these issues for a long time. He has advocated a renewal of the ‘national social contract’, and a new settlement to give those sceptical of multiculturalism a louder voice in public life. While Goodhart’s analysis seems eminently sensible, there are others who would go much further and would wish to strike a significant blow against multiculturalism in Britain.
This is a flawed approach. Those arguing for cultural homogeneity should be prepared to state on what level they would act to achieve it. Would they curtail religious diversity? Would they demand that everyone should not only be able to speak English but actively speak it whenever in public, as Nigel Farage once implied might be a good idea? Should minority groups abandon their customs and traditions?
Inescapably, a certain level of multiculturalism is already entrenched in modern Britain. Just as conservatives should be sceptical about dramatic change, so too should we be sceptical of reactionaries who preach nostalgia for the past. As with all things, tact is key.
Similarly, immigration can bring about many benefits; it usually comes with a net benefit to government revenues and can be an effective solution to structural economic issues, such as an ageing population. In many circumstances it is simply necessary; the fuel crisis of September 2021 should remind all of us of the need for immigrant workers. Needless to say, migration can also be problematic, and often negatively affects the very lowest paid. Nevertheless, multiculturalism is already entrenched within society and immigration has its benefits. Therefore these questions require balanced responses.
I would make a number of suggestions. Firstly, we need a more open public discourse on these issues. Too often those who make moderate and reasoned suggestions have their views deliberately misinterpreted and character unfairly misrepresented. This is even true when polling evidence shows that their ideas command overwhelming popular support. For example, in 2016, Amber Rudd proposed that businesses should inform the home office of the proportion of their workers who were British when applying to hire more foreign workers. The idea was not to penalise these businesses, but instead to suggest that they may wish to train more Brits for these roles. A YouGov poll showed 59% of the public supported the measure, compared to 26% who were opposed.
The media response was brutal; Labour accused Rudd of racism and LBC Contributor James O’Brien outrageously compared the policy to Nazi Doctrine. Whether or not the policy was a good idea, it did not merit such a hysterical response. If Britain is to find a balanced solution to these issues, views held by the majority of the population should neither be ignored nor ridiculed.
We also need to examine ways of further integrating new arrivals in Britain. While, as I identified earlier, extreme efforts towards integration risk curtailing essential freedoms, more moderate policies are required. For example, the government should look to increase support and funding for civil society organisations and facilities (e.g. youth groups, community and sports centres etc.). This should be done with a desire to integrate migrants into these groups, hopefully promoting a shared sense of social and national solidarity. The onus should be on migrants to become an integrated and productive part of our national community, but the government has to provide new arrivals with the opportunities and resources to achieve that.
The guiding policy when it comes to immigration should be control, balance and moderation. Much of the public hostility to migration seems to concern the rate of increase. A sharp increase is associated with sudden demographic changes within communities, which is in turn associated with popular backlash. Work by the Economist has shown that areas with the greatest upsurge in immigration in the decade prior to the Brexit vote, were often the most likely to vote to leave. By its very nature, culture is not fixed. Over time it can change, but this can only happen gradually and government policy towards immigration should reflect this reality.
If there is one lesson to be learned from the academic research I discussed earlier it is this: collective institutions require collective identities. People are more likely to contribute towards the public benefit, both financially and socially, if they feel they have more in common with those who will benefit from that contribution. With that in mind, we should seek to build a new national social contract that promotes a shared national identity. That 78% of Muslims in the UK identify as British regardless of the strength of their religious convictions demonstrates that such a policy can successfully include minority groups.
These issues are as hard to solve as they are controversial. No remedy will be completely acceptable to all groups. Yet if we are to prioritise any group, it should be those who have for too long been overlooked. Public policy should never be divorced from public opinion. Not for narrow party political reasons, but because unpopular legislation, particularly on issues as fundamental as immigration, breeds resentment and disillusionment with the political process. It stimulates anger and drives voters towards extreme parties and extreme means. For too long, Britain’s immigration policy has been determined by those who believed they knew better than everyone else. Whether or not they did, they were wrong to ignore public sentiments. For all its flaws and frailties, I believe the present government is not making that mistake.
Now of course, sometimes a government must show leadership and act in the face of public demand. I only argue that when an issue is considered to be of fundamental importance by so many people, the government should seek to recognise all strands of opinion, particularly those whose grievances are often ignored. Government policy should seek to strike a compromise acceptable to all groups. Immigration is a necessary and beneficial part of any society and economy. But it should be handled with care, with caution and with respect both for public opinion and for national solidarity.