Dream on

Published 4 June 2013 / By Nicholas Van Hear

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Are left and right converging on migration? The ConDems and Labour seem set in an ugly race to the bottom to out-clip UKIP for votes, as they think (mistakenly in my view) that the public is obsessed with the baleful effects of migration. But what about the thinkers?

In May COMPAS hosted a seminar given by the demographer David Coleman in our series on Rethinking migration. Professor Coleman is well-known for his largely anti-immigration views and I invited him so that we could engage with them. One of the objectives of the series was to hear from people who have influenced the migration debate over the last decade or so – in the run-up to a conference we are holding next year reviewing a decade of migration to the UK (roughly the life-time of COMPAS in its current ESRC-funded incarnation). Whether you like his views or not, David Coleman has certainly influenced the debate over the last ten years or more, and it seemed to me that it was time for us to hear a conservative view on the migration issue. To be honest it was also in part devilment and part playing a cut-price Voltaire.

Swivel-eyed fruitcakes?
Candied Fruit Cake
At any rate the seminar went off largely uneventfully. Predictably a couple of objectors tipped up and half-heartedly picketed the seminar room, giving out leaflets vaguely defamatory of Coleman and of COMPAS for hosting him. But somewhat disappointingly they scuttled off after dishing out their wares -- as if to bear out the myopia of (some of) the left.

Little convergence there then. What about elsewhere?

Well, there is a small but significant strand emerging in (or from) the liberal-left (yes, I know that’s a flaky term, but let me use it as a shorthand), some of whose ideas seem to be converging with some of Coleman’s.

Neo’s new threads
I’m referring to what might be called a ‘neo-realist’ or ‘neo-pragmatic’ strand on the liberal-left, some of whom, ten years on from the immigration bulge of the 1990s and early 2000s, are beginning to have second thoughts about it.

matrixI’m thinking of books that have appeared over the last few years such as The New East End by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young, and The Likes of Us by Michael Collins, which argue -- sometimes convincingly -- that the white working class has had a raw deal from migration (and from the liberal-left in general from its chav-speak).  I think this is an interesting thread of debate which should not be dismissed out of hand. Why have these folks come to such conclusions at this time?

Perhaps the most obvious and prominent exponent of this strand is David Goodhart in his recent book The British Dream. As a useful review by David Edgar shows, the book is the culmination of a thread of debate that started with a thought-provoking article Goodhart wrote in Prospect magazine in 2004 (of which he was then editor), and continued with a pamphlet written for Demos, a think tank which he was associated with.

The book addresses the tension between social solidarity or cohesion on the one hand and diversity on the other– now quite a well-trodden route of course. It is well written and in places well argued.

It tries (says the book jacket) to steer a course between two positions:

  • a centre right perspective of bringing down immigration to ‘moderate’ levels
  • and a centre left position which should shape a progressive national story about openness and opportunity.

There is much that is wrong with Goodhart’s argument and his way of arguing, not least his habit of making unsubstantiated claims and of coming on all prophet in the wilderness (a bit like Coleman perhaps – there seem to be quite a few lone prophets on the migration scene today…).

But I want here to highlight three ways in which I think he has a point, or in which some of what he says rings true.

The power of three
First, his characterisation (in a Guardian article puffing the book) of a huge industry of immigration lawyers and civil society organisations beavering away uncritically in the migration field and working to let everyone in, while over the top, somehow strikes a chord.  It may not be the case now, but at the height of the asylum seeker panic in the first half of the 2000s, the position that every asylum seeker had a valid case seemed to hold sway.  As some current and former practitioners from that period now concede, this was a mistake, not least because it did damage to public perception of the asylum system. Whether we like it or not, the asylum system depends on distinguishing between those who need protection and those who do not (but who may nevertheless have other good reasons for entry).  One can hold an open borders position, or argue that migration is a form of reparation for colonial exploitation – both perspectives carry a lot of weight. In Open-Border-World though there would be no need for an asylum system since anyone could go wherever they liked. OB Worlders surely have no need then to claim (disingenuously) that every asylum seeker has a valid case for entry.

Second, the book is quite good on the class dimensions of migration.  Indirectly the article underlines the point I’ve tried to make over many years that by and large (though by no means exclusively) it’s the better endowed and better connected who migrate to affluent countries - though they may well end up in lousy precarious jobs in the lower reaches of the precariat.  Am I alone in thinking the focus of the left on these folks - rather than those at home who are much worse off economically and in terms of rights - is perhaps misplaced?

If you do not take a transnational perspective in this field you can end up with some misleading perceptions. Migrants may well have lousy low-paid jobs and lead precarious lives, but in the bigger picture account should perhaps be taken of assets that may be held at home in the shape of housing and other resources when we are weighing up how poor (transnational) households really are.

Then again, from an internationalist, progressive position, shouldn’t some of the able stay rather than flee – the old adage ‘fight’ rather than ‘flight’? Without them there would be no Arab or any other springs, for migrants and protesters tend to be broadly from the same demographic group of educated 20- and 30-somethings.  As well as ‘brain drain’ then, migration can lead to ‘revolution diminution’.

Third (though maybe of little interest to anyone other than me), the book encouraged me to take a look at my own liberal/left values. Possibly like Goodhart, I’m a lapsed revolutionary.  Now I’m a liberal first. History seems to show that incremental change (though maybe boring) is less harmful to people than revolutionary upheaval. Now my position is to defend liberal values against attack from whatever quarter – left or right, market or state, or the 57 varieties of fundamentalism.  But while liberalism is the first base to secure, I think a good society needs to go well beyond liberalism…

Narked to be a nark
sex pistols
And strange things are happening to liberal values.  In the run-up to Margaret Thatcher’s  funeral, a song from the Wizard of Oz - sung by the Munchkins - was half-banned by the BBC because it was a focus of dissent. Strange but true…. Sex Pistols, where are you when we need you?

In our little world, defence of liberal values also includes challenging being made a nark at the behest of the UK Border Agency (or whatever it’s called these days).  Like other public institutions, universities are under pressure from UKBA (which influences the allocation of student places) to monitor overseas students: this responsibility the universities appear set to pass on to their staff -- including the possibility of handing over email correspondence between supervisor and student if required to do so.  A classic devolution of surveillance of which the Stasi would have been proud [see Dace Dzenowska: “We want to hear from you” (or how informing works in a liberal democracy)].


Swivel-eyed fruitcake (sometimes loon) A not altogether complimentary description of Conservative Party grass roots members, allegedly coined by a senior party figure early in 2013.

Neo  The main protagonist in the film The Matrix.

Munchkins Vertically challenged people in the film The Wizard of Oz, oppressed by and eventually liberated from the Wicked Witch of the East.

Sex Pistols An incendiary popular music group of the 1970s, occasionally nostalgically invoked by elderly ex- revolutionaries.

Stasi  The secret police in communist era East-Germany, hitherto thought to be extinct