It has been open silly season for some time now in British politics on migration.
Before David Cameron’s re-election in May, the Home Office experimented with bright coloured advertisement vans, driving around London boroughs with incentives and threats to illegal migrants to “go home.”
Ukip filled British towns with posters suggesting East European plumbers, taxi drivers, agricultural and construction workers were responsible for unemployment in the UK.
After the election, Cameron and his government said they would now seek to insulate British law from the influence of international human rights by withdrawing from the European Convention; impose openly discriminatory policies on working, long term resident foreigners seeking health services or child benefits; and further restrict the number of fee paying foreign students on which all British universities base their fragile finances.
There has also been much discussion about how, despite the EU, the UK might prioritise certain nationalities on border entry: enabling rich people to pay their way into the country. EU freedom of movement laws in contrast leave it up to employers to choose workers on the basis of skill, motivation and education regardless of ethnic or national origin.
Meanwhile, as the Labour Party breaks left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, there is a distinctive populist nationalism lurking in socialist slogans about the evils of “neo-liberal” capitalism.
As Labour flirts with the appeal of Brexit, and signals a willingness to embrace the Ukip agenda on defending British workers against globalisation, it joins a growing island mentality rejecting the idea of open borders.
Is Britain hostile to foreigners?
These examples point to a growing rejection on all sides of basic tenets of economic liberalism in British politics. Both parties, to evoke Cameron again, now agree that “free movement should be less free”, and that the British state should have more not less control over the international labour market. There also appears to be growing xenophobia.
Yet to a British national returning to live and work in this awkward island nation (I spent nearly 25 years working in continental Europe, North America and East Asia), it seems that Britain as a society has been transformed by its openness to all kinds of migration. It was migration in the past couple of decades that was its core economic and cultural dynamic.
For sure, the multiculturalism and racial diversity associated with Britain’s post-colonial immigration has deepened over the years. As well documented by scholars of “super diversity” (such as anthropologist Steven Vertovec) new migrations since the 1990s, whether from China, Turkey, Russia, Brazil, Nigeria or Algeria, have changed the face of all major cities.
These studies have also shown that most migrants have positively chosen Britain over other European destinations, and found it easier to live and work here.
Outside the very small numbers that arrive through illegal channels, they came mainly through family connections, to study, or because of specific job opportunities – such as working in the NHS.
These recent migrations have given Britain the kind of global diversity, beyond old colonial ties, comparable only to the US. Nowhere else in Europe has this degree of population dynamism.
Moreover, an even larger segment of recent migration to Britain has been from within the EU. The EUCROSS survey discussed in a 2013 policy brief ‘Winners and Losers? Citizens and Sceptics?’, which interviewed ordinary members of the public, suggests that British people have been among the most enthusiastic members of the EU in some respects: notably their willingness in putting into practice equality for EU foreigners in employment decisions.
A consequence of this, which I documented in my 2008 book Eurostars and Eurocities, was that from the mid 1990s on, Britain creamed off a generation or two of the brightest and most talented young European citizens. They were free to move to Britain when it was the most open and dynamic place to work in Europe.
They paved the way for a massive East European migration after the EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007. These new EU citizens came from more diverse background in terms of family income or education, but were no less attracted by the needs of the British economy, as they filled and created new jobs.
The British labour market in the 1990s and 2000s “selected” migrants very effectively so that they were overwhelmingly young, mobile, skilful and employable.
These successes are threatened by the direction of politics in the country.
The intensity of the present refugee crisis also makes it harder to appreciate the variety of migration in Britain and its positive effects.
Migration policy has to be more than just crisis management or emotive rhetoric.
By Professor Adrian Favell, Chair in Sociology and Social Theory at the University of Leeds