When a country is attacked, the issue of immigration is inevitably going to come up. If it is homegrown, terrorism will raise legitimate questions about long-term immigration policy and the degree to which outsiders are assimilating. If it is imported, terrorism will raise questions about a country’s border control or its attitude toward refugees. And that’s fine. Indeed, that’s democracy. The primary function of any government is to keep the people it represents safe from outside threats. As such, if a polity sees those threats multiplying they will — and should — ask its representatives what can be done. A responsible government would welcome such inquiries, and then make the case for its policy as best it could, acknowledging in the process that any course of action carries with it a set of costs, and that immigration is no different. A responsible government would be a responsive government.
And the lack of responsiveness is thus a democratic failure.
This was a topic touched on by David Goodhart (by no means a man of the right) in the course of an article written in the wake of the UK’s EU referendum for the British magazine Prospect. Goodhart saw discontent over immigration as the “paramount” reason for the Brexit vote. I’m not convinced by the “paramount” (although it was undoubtedly a vital contributor to the result), but Goodhart is right to link discontent over “20 years of historically unprecedented immigration” to (my emphasis added) the “insouciant response of the political class to this change—one that never appeared in an election manifesto and was never chosen by anyone”.
Later on in the same piece, Goodhart looks at the economic angle (again, my emphasis added) :
To many liberals the popular hostility to large-scale immigration is a classic example of people sacrificing their material interests to their cultural values. But that assumes a widely spread economic benefit from immigration. It is true that the effect on jobs and wages at the bottom end is less negative than many people assume. But on the other hand there is not a strikingly positive economic story for the existing population on wages, employment or growth—and taking immigration as a whole, the fiscal contribution is slightly negative.
In areas of high immigration people doing middling and low skill jobs can come to feel even more like a replaceable cog in the economic machine as they are exposed to greater competition of various kinds with outsiders. Instead of the “one nation” they are beseeched to sign up to they will often see a political class casting aside the common-sense principle of fellow-citizen favouritism.
If they want to understand part of the reason for the resentment over their immigration policies in the US, Jeb Bush and the rest of the Chamber of Commerce crowd would do well to read the words in bold. That their approach is economically illiterate, an anachronism in the age of mass automation, only adds injury to insult.
Back to Goodhart:
Areas of low immigration are often depressed former industrial areas or seaside towns where people feel that the national story has passed them by, as it has. Opposition to immigration there is more about the changing priorities of the country and its governing class, priorities that no longer seem to include them.
Goodhart argues that the significantly higher levels of immigration under Blair and Brown governments were a matter of unforeseen consequences. Yes and no, I’d say, but this observation is worth noting:
[A]s New Labour increasingly converged on a centre-right consensus on economics, being pro-immigration and pro-multiculturalism loomed ever larger in the centre-left political consciousness.
“Center-right” goes too far, but the broader point is worth pondering: Was support for immigration and multiculturalism a way for ‘progressives’ to reassure themselves (and signal to others) that they had kept the faith?