Farage is right – it’s not just the economy, stupid!

The immigration debate is about more than jobs and taxes; it is about the small everyday changes that people feel are undermining their sense of belonging. It should not be left to UKIP alone to speak on these issues.

Tottenham Hale. Image: Alan Stanton/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

And so it goes on. The seemingly endless debate about immigration continues apace fuelled by data from the latest BSA survey which shows that over three-quarters of the British population now want immigration cut, with around a half wanting it cut by ‘a lot’. Time for news editors to wheel out, on the one hand, the arguments about the contribution that migrants make in terms of the taxes they pay, the jobs they create and the crap yet necessary work they undertake that nobody else will do, and on the other, the jobs, benefits and housing they take. See, it’s still all about the economy, stupid; only in this case it isn’t.

Whatever else one may think of Nigel Farage, leader of UK Independence Party, the point he made recently concerning the ‘social’ impact of immigration needs to be addressed. And by addressed, I don’t mean that his often ludicrous views are unconditionally supported but this broader point is raised, considered and debated in a clear and thoughtful manner. For while the debate around immigration continues to be dominated by economic considerations, which do of course matter, much of the research (Mann & Fenton, 2009, Skey, 2010, Garner, 2010, Mann, 2011, Leddy-Owen, 2012, Kenny, 2012) on people’s attitudes towards immigration shows that they are primarily concerned about social issues and, in particular, how everyday environments are changing in ways that they find problematic.

For instance, many people I spoke to were generally quite willing to acknowledge the contribution that migrants made to the economy, with the exception of those who worked in industries where they were in direct competition with more recent arrivals, the building trade being the most obvious example. They also raised concerns about public services, taking part in lively debates about whether Britain was a ‘soft touch’ and who should be entitled to jobs, housing and so on. By far and away the biggest issues for them, however, was the changing face of British society and how they no longer felt ‘at home’ in what they considered to be ‘their’ country.

The problem with addressing these debates openly and seriously is two-fold. First, it’s much harder to quantify these issues when compared with jobs or housing or benefits, which can be defined, however imperfectly, in numerical or monetary terms. Secondly, they revolve around questions of belonging, which have been and continue to be often defined in terms of race.

There is no doubt that hierarchies of belonging (which people are seen to belong more than others) in Britain are still partly predicated on racial differences. Members of the white ethnic majority continue to position themselves as the group that belongs without question and, therefore, claim to be the ‘natural’ arbiters of national territory and culture. Likewise, ethnic minorities continue to suffer from high levels of exclusion and opprobrium when dealing with or being confronted by established British institutions; the education system, media, police, parliament, courts and so on.

However, as the BBC political editor Nick Robinson argued only this week, the terms of the debate around immigration are changing because it can no longer be defined as a simple issue of black and white due to the recent influx of migrants from Eastern Europe. That is, the distinction between non-whites as the interlopers, whites as the hosts is beginning to unravel. Furthermore, attitudes among both ethnic majority and minority Briton’s are also shifting. In the former case, younger generations, in particular, are much more tolerant of ethnic diversity and more willing to recognise non-whites as British. In the latter case, there is growing anecdotal evidence that second and third generation ethnic minorities are increasingly willing to assert their own sense of belonging and entitlement in relation to more recent arrivals. In other words, they increasingly view Britain as ‘their’ country and as a result lay claim to the benefits (economic and social) that flow from this.

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