The facts, the myths and the framing of immigration

The case of Britain

Today, the same arguments once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and east Europeans. However, Kenan Malik finds some comfort in reviewing the facts of the matter. He then tackles the illusions.

At the heart of the current debate about immigration are two issues: the first is about the facts, the second about the public perception of immigration.

The facts are relatively straightforward. Immigration is a good thing and the idea that immigrants come to Britain to live off benefits laughable. Immigrants put more money into the economy than they take out1 and have a negligible impact on jobs and wages. An independent report on the impact of immigration commissioned by the Home Office in 2003, looked at numerous international surveys and conducted its own study in Britain. “The perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, or that immigrants depress the wages of existing workers”, it concluded, “do not find confirmation in the analysis of the data laid out in this report”.2 More recent studies have suggested that immigration helps raise wages3 except at the bottom of the jobs ladder where it has a slight negative impact.4 That impact on low paid workers matters hugely, of course, but is arguably more an issue of labour organization than of immigration.

Immigrants are less likely to claim benefits than British citizens. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, of the roughly 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age in this country, about 90,000, or around five per cent, claim an “out of work benefit”, compared with around 13 per cent of Britons. Migrants from outside the EU are also much less likely to claim benefits.5

The most comprehensive study to date of East European migrants in Britain concluded that “A8 immigrants who arrived after EU enlargement in 2004 […] are 60 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits, and 58 per cent less likely to live in social housing”. The study also discovered that “in each fiscal year since enlargement in 2004, A8 immigrants made a positive contribution to public finance despite the fact that the UK has been running a budget deficit over the last years”. This was because “they have a higher labour force participation rate, pay proportionately more in indirect taxes, and make much lower use of benefits and public services”. They paid around 30 per cent more in taxes than they cost our public services.6

Whatever the truth about immigration, it is clear that there exists widespread popular hostility to immigrants. For some, often on the right, the hostility makes sense because, irrespective of its economic benefits, the social impact of immigration is destructive. For others, often on the left, such hostility exists because people are irrational and take little notice of facts and figures. Both arguments have little merit.

Immigrants, the critics insist, disrupt communities, undermine traditional identities, and promote unrestrained change. David Goodhart, director of Demos, whose book on immigration, The British Dream, is published on Monday, claimed last week that “Large-scale immigration has created an England that is increasingly full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds”. As a result, “for many of the white people […] the disappearance of familiar mental and physical landmarks has happened too fast”. He quotes one man from Merton in south London: “We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more”.7

Had Arthur Balfour been able to read that, he would undoubtedly have nodded in agreement. Balfour was the Prime Minister in 1905 when Britain introduced its first immigration controls, aimed primarily at European Jews. Without such a law, Balfour claimed, “though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution […] nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come”. Two years earlier, the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration (an “alien” was, in the early twentieth century, both a description of a foreigner and a euphemism for a Jew) had expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live “according to their traditions, usages and customs” and that there might be “grafted onto the English stock […] the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe”.

The sense that Jewish immigration was uncontrolled and that “We’ve lost this place to other cultures. It’s not English any more”, was palpable in the discussions. “There is no end to them in Whitechapel and Mile End”, claimed one witness giving evidence to 1903 Royal Commission. “These areas of London might be called Jerusalem”. The Conservative MP Major Sir William Eden Evans-Gordon expressed the same sentiment through a quite extraordinary metaphor. “Ten grains of arsenic in a thousand loaves would be unnoticeable and perfectly harmless”, he told Parliament, “but the same amount put into one loaf would kill the whole family that partook of it”.

By the 1950s, the Jewish community had come to be seen as part of the British cultural landscape. The same arguments used against Jews half a century earlier were now deployed against a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. A Colonial Office report of 1955 echoed Arthur Balfour, fearing that “a large coloured community as a noticeable feature of our social life would weaken […] the concept of England or Britain to which people of British stock throughout the Commonwealth are attached”. There were worries, too, about the uncontrolled nature of immigration. “The question of numbers and of the increase in numbers”, Enoch Powell insisted, lie at “the very heart of the problem”. “Whole areas, towns and parts of England”, he claimed, were being “occupied by different sections of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population”. A decade later Margaret Thatcher gave a notorious TV interview in which she claimed that there were in Britain “an awful lot” of black and Asian immigrants and that “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture”. The echoes are unmistakable both of the debate about Jews before and of the contemporary immigration debate.

Just as Jews became an accepted part of the cultural landscape, so did postwar immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, though the acceptance was more grudging, and often not extended to Muslims. Today, the same arguments that were once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and East Europeans.

The idea that immigration is disruptive of culture, identity and social cohesion is, in other words, as old as immigration itself. Whether it is Irish or Jews coming to Britain, Italians or North Africans to France, Catholics or Chinese to America, every wave of immigration is met fear and hostility and a sense of being overwhelmed.

Crowd on Ladbroke Grove during the Notting Hill Carnival, 2006. Source: Wikimedia

Immigration has clearly brought major changes, in the physical character of British cities, in the rhythm of social life and in the sense of what it is to be British. But immigration is not alone in driving social changes, nor is it even the most important driver of social change. Had not a single immigrant come to Britain, Britons today would still be living in a vastly different nation from that of half a century ago. Feminism, consumerism, increased social mobility, the growth of youth culture, the explosion of mass culture, the acceptance of free market economic policies, the destruction of trade unions, the decimation of manufacturing industries, the rise of the finance and service sectors, greater individual freedom, the atomisation of society, the decline of traditional institutions such as the Church – all have helped transform Britain, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. But it is immigrants who primarily have become symbolic of change, and of change for the worse. Why? Because of the way that the immigration debate has been framed. From the beginning, immigration has been viewed as a problem, even as a threat. This is true even of liberals and multiculturalists, who might welcome diversity but think it has to be policed, by enforcing speech codes for instance, to minimize the clashes and conflicts and frictions that it brings in its wake. Inevitably, therefore, immigration comes to be seen at best with suspicion, at worst with hostility.

Consider, for instance, an image that David Goodhart uses as a symbol of unpalatable change – that of a newly built mosque in Merton, south London. The “mega mosque”, Goodhart writes, “replaced an Express Dairies bottling plant which provided a few hundred jobs for local people and lots of milk bottles – an icon of an earlier, more homogenised age”.8 In fact, as a local blogger pointed out, “the dairy closed in 1992 and the mosque was inaugurated in 2003”. There was a seven-year gap between the dairy closing and building work beginning on the mosque. 9 In those seven years the abandoned dairy was, according to local accounts, turned into a crack den.10 So, one story we could tell is that of economic forces closing down an unprofitable dairy, with the loss of a several hundred jobs, and of Muslims subsequently rescuing the abandoned, crime-infested site, creating new jobs, both in the construction and in the running of the mosque, and in the process transforming Merton for the better. Critics of immigration want, however, to tell a different story. The mosque, in their eyes, is symbolic not of the rescue of a site from abandonment and crime, but of the original closure of the dairy and of the transformation of Merton’s old way of life.

All this takes us to the second kind of argument as to why immigration continues to be such a fraught political issue. Many, often on the left, accept that immigration is a good but worry that people are too irrational to understand. Hitting people with facts and figures, they suggest, will not help. We need to accept people’s emotional opposition to immigration. If we do not engage with people’s anxieties, they argue, the left’s project will get shouted down by rightwing and populist anti-immigration voices.

It is true that simply presenting facts and figures will change few minds. This is not, however, because people are irrational or because they are indifferent to facts, but because facts are always understood within a particular political, social or philosophical framework. Since the issue of immigration has been framed in such a way that both sides accept immigrants as a problem, so it is inevitable that people will understand facts and figures within that context. That is why the Merton mosque, for instance, is seen only as a threat and as a metaphor of loss. That is why the economic and social changes that truly disrupted the old way of life in Merton become elided with the building of the mosque, and the mosque becomes symbolic of change for worse.

If we want the facts and figures to have an impact we need first to reframe the immigration debate. There is not much point in showing that immigrants do not come to sponge off the welfare state, or that they benefit the economy, if we have already accepted that immigrants are a problem. We need rather to view immigration from an entirely different perspective. We need to acknowledge the movement of peoples as neither an aberration, nor as an evil to be tolerated, but as an inherent part of human life. We need to view the social changes that immigration brings not as a loss of something precious, but also as the gain of something valuable, the creation of a more open, vibrant, cosmopolitan society. We should regard the clashes and conflicts in ideas and values that immigration often creates not as something to be feared and minimised but as something to be prized, the basis of social engagement, the means by which we can break out of our narrow cultural boxes and create the possibility of a common language of citizenship.

Adopting such an approach is difficult because it runs counter to so much of what is regarded as social wisdom. That is why it is all the more important to view immigration in this fashion. To do so requires, however, conviction and courage. And those are two virtues noticeable by their absence in contemporary politics.

Jonathan Portes, "A crisis over the UK's benefits bill for EU migrants? What crisis?", Guardian, 6 March 2013,

Christian Dustmann, Francesca Fabbri, Ian Preston and Jonathan Wadsworth, "The local labour market effects of immigration in the UK", Home Office Report June 2003,

Cristina Cattaneo, Carlo V. Fiorio and Giovanni Peri, "What happens to the careers of European workers when immigrants 'take their jobs'?", IZA discussion paper no. 7282, March 2013,

Stephen Nickell and Jumana Saleheen, "The impact of immigration on occupational wages: Evidence from Britain", Federal Reserve Bank of Boston working paper no. 08-6,

Department of Work and Pensions, "Nationality at point of National Insurance number registration of DWP benefit claimants: February 2011 working age benefits", January 2012,

Christian Dustmann, Tommaso Frattini and Caroline Halls, "Assessing the fiscal costs and benefits of A8 migration to the UK", Fiscal Studies 31, no. 1 (2010): 1-41,

David Goodhart, "A mega mosque in a suburb that was 90 per cent white 30 years ago and the polite apartheid dividing Britain", MailOnline, 24 March 2013,


Published 8 April 2013
Original in English
First published by Pandaemonium

© Kenan Malik / Eurozine



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