An exclusive party?

Caroline Oliver

Like it or not, over the last few days the UK has been touched by the regalia, pageantry, pomp and ceremony of the Diamond Jubilee, a four day holiday weekend to mark 60 years since the accession of Elizabeth II. From the giant canvas of the monarchy overlooking a seven and a half mile flotilla of a thousand boats on the Thames, to the 10,000 or so street parties festooned with union jack bunting, the event vividly reminds us of the continued power of the nation-state.

Such a display seems curiously quaint in a time when nationalism is increasingly deemed irrelevant as a dynamic of twenty-first century living. Yet academics suggest it is less these grand displays than the very ‘banality’ of nationalism which emotionally grips and binds diverse individuals, providing a locus for their sense of self, families and community, particularly within uncertain times. As Michael Billig (1995:6) remarked, ‘Nationalism, far from being an intermittent mood in established nations, is the endemic condition”.

Who are ‘we’?

Debates on who comprises the nation-state squarely ponder the place of migrant, with a prevalent discourse emphasising the assumed menace they represent to the social cohesion of the nation, particularly through their access to the welfare state. Indeed, across Europe, nation-states increasingly attempt to control immigrant flows via restrictions on their access to healthcare, education, welfare and housing benefits.

This area is largely the concern of the work I am involved with since joining COMPAS three months ago on the IMPACIM project, a cross-national study with other research teams based in the Netherlands, Germany and Spain.

The work looks at the admissions criteria and conditions of stay in 4 countries and the impacts of such conditions on integration. It particularly looks at these factors in relation to family migration, one of the most significant channels of immigration to Europe and therefore, often seen as one of the most controversial.  Family migration is allowed for humanitarian reasons, with ‘the right to a family life’ enshrined in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Yet in comparison to other migration flows, it is viewed as a route that has remained more open than others, as family migrants do not need to display skills or their potential contribution to the economy.

Commentators and observers are waiting to find out if the UK government’s proposals on family migration in last year’s consultation are to become a reality (see UKBA). Among other changes on access and conditions of stay, it would involve the extension of the probationary period from 2 to 5 years, during which family migrants will have no recourse to public funds, to the safety net that citizens take for granted. There would also be a minimum income requirement of a sponsor to up to £25,700.

The IMPACIM remit

We are now all becoming increasingly aware of the unintended fallout around international student numbers arising from attempts to cap net migration. The upshot is that it’s no easy game to tinker with migration flows. Likewise, policies on family migration will inevitably affect certain groups far more than others and are likely to have unprecedented effects in excluding certain families (see All-Party Parliamentary Group on Migration and Migrants Rights Network). Equally of interest is that the justification of new proposals are built on a rationale to promote integration (in addition to reducing numbers and the fiscal burden) without a clear understanding of the ways that access to services or restrictions impacts integration. This issue is the remit of the IMPACIM research.

So, in the days following the Jubilee, as the bunting comes down, there is space for reflection on the way that the ‘we-feeling’ generated within the spectacle of the last few days ultimately refers to a certain type of ‘we’. The ostentatious display may pass, but it is quickly replaced by the no less powerful workings of the nation-state, which – albeit often in a taken-for-granted manner and beyond the level of consciousness – continues to create its own exclusive invitation list.

One might politically agree or disagree with policies that have caps and contribution as core words.  But when it comes to making those decisions I think we need to the space to not only debate ideas and ideologies about who is allowed in, but to generate robust evidence of what works and what doesn’t in relation to migration policies. I am looking forward to my time at COMPAS to contribute to that important agenda.

Further information


Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage Publications.