This article was first published by Bloc, a left-leaning political collective based in Northern England. See blocuk.com

One of the big issues of the upcoming election, perhaps the single biggest, is how the UK will position itself with relation to the rest of the world, particularly with Europe. Or at least, that is true of the major English parties; my apologies to readers in other parts of the union, I am simply not well enough versed in your politics to comment. The rise of UKIP has been fuelled by, and in turn encouraged, a politics which sees the UK as somehow diminished by external influences. This perception has become so pervasive that the Green Party stands alone amongst the English parties in seeking to reduce immigration controls. Labour and the Liberal Democrats both argue for increased control, limiting ‘bad’ immigration, while both UKIP and the Conservatives have provided targets for overall reductions in immigration. This negativity no doubt reflects the fears of the electorate; we must never forget that election promises are made, above all, to win votes. However the very fact that such promises may be taken as representing the will of at least a significant part of the British population is deeply troubling. It suggests that we as a nation have lost sight of the value of an external point of view, and this is something which cannot be allowed to go unquestioned

There is a stereotype popular among left-wing friends of mine, which lampoons the average man on the street for believing that immigrants come to the UK to steal jobs, whilst simultaneously sponging off the state. While this is hardly fair for the majority of people, it does seem to be reflected in the policies of the major parties, who (setting aside the Greens), are split between seeking to limit the potential for immigrants to claim benefits – for example by requiring them to have been resident for some period, or by stopping migrant workers claiming child benefits for non-resident children – or seeking to limit the arrival of low skilled workers through some form of tariff system. This suggests that both benefits and jobs are points of genuine concern – the stereotype is, like so many others, grounded in truth – and we must therefore address these concerns if we want discourse to progress

So, first of all, jobs. It is hard to get non-anecdotal evidence for the impact of migrant workers on the labour market, but one this is clear. There can be no claim that foreign workers come over here and provide labour which is somehow preferred to native English workers. Put simply, businesses want to make money, and yes, they might only pay minimum wage, but that does not mean that an English worker is less likely to get hired for the same job – the person who will be best for the businesses bottom line will get the job. Nor, indeed, can it be suggested that there are a set number of jobs available; as the population grows, so too does demand for services of any given kind, meaning that more providers of said service will be needed, leading to more jobs. It is simply not the case that immigration undermines the potential for native workers to find employment. If migrant workers appear to be disproportionately preferred, the problem is not with our immigration controls, but with the way people in this country are prepared for the working world, which is an entirely different, though equally pressing, problem

What of the economic cost of immigration? Clamping down on ‘benefit tourism’ has been a common trope of the election campaign, and it is certainly true that there are immigrants who do end up claiming benefits for some period of time, but the picture is far from straight-forward. One recent study found that about 600,000 EU immigrants to the UK who were over 15 years old were ‘non-active’ in the economy, which accounts for about 30% of the total. However, this figure includes students (who contribute vast amounts in fees), pensioners and those not working, but also not claiming benefit, such as those taking time out to raise children – only about 128,000 immigrants were, at the time the survey’s results were collected, claiming job-seekers allowance. Interestingly, some 45% of natives over 15 fall into the non-native category, suggesting that EU immigrants are more likely to be in work than natives

Further, a recent study conducted by University College London found that migrants to the UK from the European Economic Area (EEA) made a net contribution to central government finances of some £4.4 billion between 1995 and 2011, in contrast to both natives and non-EEA migrants; UK natives cost the Government £591.5 billion while non-EEA migrants cost £118 billion. This can be easily explained by considering the demographics of the various groups. In contrast to migrants from the wider world, most EAA migrants (including those from certain much-maligned eastern European countries) arrive as workers, a fact reflected in their positive tax contributions. Other groups include substantial numbers of non-contributors, such as children and pensioners, meaning they do not have the same positive impact on the economy

In opposition to this positive tax contribution, some people might cite the apparent cost of EU membership. I do not intend to open that particular can of worms, since I wish to focus specifically on immigration here. Instead, let me simply say that the full economic implications of EU membership are so complex that we will probably never be to say categorically whether it is beneficial or not – I am certainly not qualified to make such a judgement. In fact, even if the UK leaves the EU, the numerous other factors effecting economic activity would make it all but impossible to work out what part of any change resulted from ending economic union

The fact is that couching discussion of our relations with other countries in economic terms is not only a cause of intractable disagreement, it also represents a fundamental failure in our understanding of the issue. The debate should not be one of numbers but of people, and, to use that most hideous of political buzz phrases, social capital. Considering immigration in monetary terms is never going to accurately represent the myriad ways in which immigration makes our country a more interesting, pleasant place, nor will it do justice to the value of individuals

Since the emperor Claudius began the Roman conquest of Britain in 43AD, England has been shaped by immigration by successive waves of people; Italians, Germans, Scandinavians all shaped the political, social and cultural make-up of Britain, before the idea of ‘England’ had even come into being. We have been ruled by kings from Normandy, Anjou, Wales, Scotland and the Netherlands and Germany. From Roman roads and cities, to Scandinavian names and French law, England was a place of hybridity even before the 20th Century. Individual immigrants also made great contributions in a pre-globalised world; the painter Holbein, who is largely responsible for everyone’s ideas of Henry VIII, was an immigrant, while arguably the most famous ‘English’ composer before the 20th century – G.F. Handel – adopted England as his home country and is buried in Westminster Abbey, despite being German. With the rise of the British Empire, we placed ourselves at the centre of a global network which spread across all seven continents. Through all these processes, our small island has prospered, continuing to punch well above its weight despite the loss of our global empire, while our culture has been immeasurably enriched

That being said, significant, visible immigration is a relatively new phenomenon, coming about primarily through processes of decolonisation and subsequently, through our membership of the European Union. In other words, large scale immigration is about as old as my parents, so some level of apprehension is understandable. We do not yet know what the long term effects of globalisation will be. What we do know, however, is that England’s historic immigration has, so far, only served to create a more vibrant country. Take the Notting Hill carnival. Until the late 1980s, this was a point of genuine concern, as previously separate cultures were forced to face one another. Coming face to face with something new is always scary. And yet, thirty years later, the Notting Hill carnival has been embraced as one of the countries most vibrant cultural events. It is generally accepted now that England’s national dish is Chicken Tikka Masala – another product of immigration. And immigrants contribute to so much more than our cultural diversity. Without doctors and nurses from the Indian sub-continent, the NHS would never have been able to get off the ground (in fact, some 40% of NHS staff are foreign born – immigrants continue to play a vital role in maintaining a healthcare system which is free at the point of service, long may it continue;). Immigrants and their children (thinking here of Natalie Bennett and Baroness Warsi respectively) are also powerful figures at both ends of the political spectrum, doing much to inspire and enliven debate. Even one of the founders of Marks & Spencer’s was an immigrant. Just think, an England without immigration would be an England without Percy Pigs!

It is clear that, above and beyond the economic issues lies another level of contribution which political discourse has hardly noted. Like so many issues facing the United Kingdom, immigration should be treated as a debate about people not pounds sterling. This is particularly important for that subclass of immigrants – asylum seekers – who have historically been welcomed with less opposition, but who have recently come under increased scrutiny. The sinking of a ship carrying some eight hundred people should be a tragedy, but in the run up to an election, it is treated as way of scoring political points, which belies the fact that every one of those six hundred people had parents, children and friends who’s lives will be immeasurably diminished by their death. To make matters worse, these are people fleeing violence, people who are particularly in need of our support. I have sat and shared meals with people who had come to this country bearing both physical and mental scars; they are intelligent, engaging people who deserve to be welcomed as a part of this country. Instead they are increasingly faced with scorn and bureaucracy

The question we ask about immigration should not be ‘is Britain full’ or ‘can we afford to allow uncontrolled immigration to continue’, but ‘how much poorer would our society be if immigrant ceased to play a central role in its formation’? It is time to re-frame the debate

Further Reading

For the policies points of the English parties, see
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29642613 and http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2015/manifesto-guide

For economic contribution of migrants to UK economy see http://ec.europa.eu/employment_social/empl_portal/facebook/20131014%20GHK%20study%20web_EU%20migration.pdf and https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/1114/051114-economic-impact-EU-immigration (full report available as eJournal from any academic library)

For discussion of patterns of Migration over the last twenty years (a subject I have not touched on here, but one worth consideration), see
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30243472

For views in favour of continued membership of the EU see http://www.euromove.org.uk/index.php?id=15296

For those against, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/8965907/What-are-the-benefits-of-staying-in-the-European-Union.html

And for balanced discussion of both perspectives, see
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-20448450

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