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Home News The great British immigration debate

The great British immigration debate

Published on 03/07/2009

The two world wars of the early twentieth century, the subsequent collapse of empires and the development of transportation technology changed everything for Europe. Since then, mass immigration into both Europe and the United Kingdom has reached unprecedented levels. According to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2005 some 9.7 percent of the population in Britain was born outside Britain and, by 2031, the Office of National Statistics predicts that the UK’s population will reach 70 million, with the 70 percent rise directly attributable to immigration.

In the UK, the immigration debate is about agreeing on a common vision for the future. Should Britain become a cultural melting pot and embrace cultural diversity, as a key driver for global competitive advantage in the 21st century? Or should Britain limit immigration and protect Britain’s homogeneity, because multiculturalism threatens Britain’s native culture, values and communities? At the centre of the debate is what constitutes British identity and the question of whether defending white British homogeneity is an act of racism.

Migration is at an all time high worldwide. According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 2005, there were 191 million migrants, meaning three percent of the world’s population live in a different country to that of their birth. This level of mass migration has become possibly the most important challenge of the 21st century.

Naturally, countries have their own particular attitudes to immigration that arise from their own histories and cultures, so no two countries deal with these issues in the same way.

A brief history of immigration in Britain

Looking back far enough, every country is born out of once migrating tribes that settled in newfound lands.

In Britain, prior to the Roman invasion in 43 AD, only the Celtic and Pictish tribes had comfortably established themselves on these islands. By the fifth century, the Romans had abandoned the British Isles and Germanic tribes arrived. Four hundred years later, the Vikings invaded Britain. Following their conquest in 1066, the Normans then extended their great influence, changing the direction and culture of England’s politics and language forever.

From the early eighteenth century, Britain’s Empire reached across the world and foreign trade increased. But the ban of slavery in 1833 virtually halted all immigration, though wealthy families continued to employ servants from Asia. British ports became areas of some diversity as foreign seaman sometimes settled there. And in 1830, came the first wave of mass immigration as tens of thousands of Irish arrived in Britain to escape extreme poverty in Ireland. But the last 70 years have seen the largest influx into the UK for a thousand years.

Guilt, the Empire and labour shortages

Britain today seems to have a collective guilt about its once ‘glorious’ Empire. Post-Empire Brits sense some sort of duty to solve the world’s problems. Perhaps one of the country’s ways of coming to terms with the Empire has been to throw open the doors to economic migrants and refugees from all over the world.

Historically, immigration has been an economic necessity and immigrants continue to contribute a vast amount to the UK’s wealth and success. During the two World Wars, people from the colonies fought and died for Britain. Shortly after the war, Britain gave up its colonies and, with a shortage of work and little prospects for wealth, immigration into Britain began in earnest.

However, in 1968, MP Enoch Powell made a landmark speech that sent shockwaves through the UK and, according to popular media, made him one of the most loathed politicians in the country. Labelled the ‘Rivers of blood’ speech, Powell warned the native British how, with no limits on immigration, they would become a minority race themselves. Despite receiving letters of support and a poll suggesting that 74 percent of British people agreed with him, he was dismissed from the Conservative shadow cabinet.

By 2002, Britain’s cultural landscape had changed dramatically. The then Prime Minister Tony Blair stated "blood alone" does not define national identity and that modern Britain is shaped by a "rich mix of all different ethnic and religious origins." This statement clearly reflects the positive attitude of the British government towards immigration.

Migrants in, Brits out

In recent years however, there has been a rise in support for far-right politics, represented by the British National Party, from ordinary workers. One of the party’s key aims is to significantly reduce immigration and provide ‘British jobs for British people’. This largely controversial party has been labelled as racist but the election of two BNP politicians into the European parliament in 2009 is perhaps a sign of a negative mood amongst some of the UK electorate about the effects of mass immigration [see Pundits: Europe’s left loses vote it should have won].

In this time of economic recession, many British have lost their jobs and more people are becoming more desperate for employment. Those out of work perhaps look at how immigrant labour has increased throughout the country and feel that opportunities have been taken from them and that their voices are not heard.

Fraser Nelson of the political magazine The Spectator writes, ‘BNP support is the scream of the forgotten voter’ in Britain. He explains that, over the last ten years, the Labour government hasn’t reduced the number of British people living on state benefits (never less than 5 million) and has instead met the `needs of expanding the economy with a limitless supply of industrious immigrant labour.’ This, he says, demonstrates `deep dysfunctionality in the UK labour market.’  [For more information, click here]

Between 1997 and 2009, immigrants accounted for 106 percent of new jobs in the private sector–which means there are more new workers (1.55 million) than new jobs (1.47 million). In October 2008, an all-party group of politicians in parliament made a plea for ‘balanced immigration’, suggesting that immigration should be linked to the number of people leaving the country.

As immigration has increased so too has British emigration. Government figures showed that by 2006, some 207,000 British nationals were emigrating each year. It has even become big business, as emigration fairs have emerged around the country where, according to a Daily Mail article, `Canadian and American governments set out to lure Brits with the right skills’

Striking a balance

The debate about what constitutes British identity goes on, and will continue to be a controversial topic. It is clear from reports that immigrants in the UK contribute a huge amount to the British economy. But with increases in unemployment amongst British-born residents, questions linger about how the government will deal with issues of identity, employment and the future of a multicultural Britain.

In 2008, the Borders Agency implemented the new points-based system to better monitor and control immigration. It is too early to say what benefits this will bring long-term but what is certain is that immigration remains a key issue for political parties and the government. In the end, it is a question of achieving the right balance.

Perhaps an accurate reflection of how Britain has embraced cultural diversity is Britain’s favourite dish:  no longer traditional fish’n’chips but chicken tikka masala!

Peter Orange/ Editor Expatica UK