It’s time to come clean about immigration

It is time to come clean about immigration. It is a good thing. It is a good thing culturally and economically.

My life is vastly enriched by friendships with people who have come to the UK as immigrants and others who are the children of immigrants. They include people who came seeking asylum and people who came seeking a better life. My life is enriched by other friends who have emigrated, through whom I have valued networks of friends in many other parts of the world.

Economically too, migration matters. People sometimes talk as if there are a finite number of jobs and immigrants increase the competition. This is nonsense. Immigrants come, they work, they buy things, their presence boosts the economy. They create more work and more possibility.

study published in 2014 showed that European migrants pay substantially more in taxes than they take in benefits. They arrive having finished schooling, and all the costs to the state of bringing people to adulthood.

The free movement of people is one of the central pillars of the single market. This is not about sharing out the burdens of the market, or worshipping an economic idol, it is because it boosts the economy and society, and builds bridges between peoples.

Culture and economy come together. Networks of friends across borders help enable people to relate internationally. That is about being global citizens, and it is about the trust that enables international trade. It is about the ties that bind us and stop us going to war — whether that is trade war or armed conflict. It is about trust and connection and possibility.

It was grossly unfair of the government to deny migrants from the rest of the EU the chance to vote in the referendum. These are people who enrich our society and enrich our economy. They are worried by the possibility of Brexit, and so should we be.

Yes, some people are afraid. They are afraid that their jobs and homes are insecure. Encouraging them to blaming “foreigners” is the oldest trick in the book. It is a great way to rouse a rabble to fight, but it doesn’t mesh with reality. It’s worse than that. Blaming the “foreigners” who actually make this country richer (in all senses), harms us. It lets the government wriggle out of responsibility for the failures of its housing and benefits policies. It callously exploits the vulnerable in our society.

As the racist loses out by not knowing people of other races, the xenophobe loses out by attacking the people who would otherwise make their life better.

I am appalled at the way in which some of those arguing for Brexit dangle the prospect of Turkey, Albania (or wherever) being rushed into the EU and unleashing a flood of immigrants. Two years ago UKIP were under pressure to apologise having scaremongered that the “floodgates will open” when visa-free access from Romania and Bulgaria began, only to find a mere 4000 people came in the three months. The same card is being played again with even less credibility because these additional countries are nowhere near entering the EU (and anyway, all EU nations have a veto on new accessions).

This jingoism is already doing the UK harm — and would do substantial damage if it led to a vote for Brexit. With Tories and Labour equivocating, we desperately need Liberal Democrats to stand up for all we gain from migration and the diversity it brings.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • All that may be true, but you need to understand the fear before you can address it and this article fails to meet head on what is one of the biggest concern’s of the Brexiters which is the fear that the country won’t be enriched by mass migration but diminished.

    Before I continue I need to stress that I am putting forward a point of view, not my point of view.

    The fear that some people have is that there will come a point when the established culture and traditions of the UK which are, broadly speaking, liberal, tollerant and progressive, will be diluted to the point of disappearance due to incomers and birth rates among migrant populations. They think this process has already started, and they think that what will replace the previous culture will not be liberal, tolerant or progressive.

    Anyone defending immigration therefore has to (perversely) argue that cultural assimilation on those points is non-negotiable; to be intolerant of intolerance if you like, and to be seen to uphold this. Illiberal, intolerant and non-progressive attitudes and behavioura need to be called our wherever they arise.

    The alternative just reinforces the fears of the Brexiters.

  • Rightsaidfredfan 5th Jun '16 - 10:00am

    You seem to be suggesting people who have a problem with immigration are just racists who should not be listened to because there are almost no serious risks or downsides to it.

    Well the referendums is the remains side to lose. Remain were ahead in the polls and remain is the status quo. And I think this article is a great example of why remain are going to throw it away and lose the referendum.

    Mass Immigration has brought some benefits and made life very difficult for others. There are legitimate concerns about mass immigration and not everyone who objects to it is a racist.

  • Rightsaidfredfan

    Well said. Not everyone who wants immigration from the EU controlled is racist, afraid or too thick to understand the benefits immigration brings. The “Remain” camp will have to change it’s stance on this or they will lose this referendum and I for one never thought that could happen.

  • The fact is mass immigration is not popular with the about 70 plus percent of the population who want it reduced. Virtually every single poll since the 1960s shows this. If the only people objecting are really racists or xenophobes that means the majority of the population must be racist or xenophobic to at least some extent. Does anyone rally think this?
    Whichever way you look at it advocates of open borders and mass immigration, and I’m one of them, are in the minority which means that there is a fundamental democratic problem with the policy. At the moment there’s a lot of angst and woe on the left and in progressive circles about the rise of populism, but maybe the real issue is that we have imposed an immigration policy that has virtually no democratic mandate and little support.

  • Peter Watson 5th Jun '16 - 10:38am

    “It is time to come clean about immigration. It is a good thing. It is a good thing culturally and economically.”
    Then why restrict it to immigration from countries within the EU?

  • @John Bennett
    “Liberals, as people of general goodwill, might be concerned with the damage that immigration into Britain could cause elsewhere.”

    Totally agree. It’s now well established (despite Remain folk continuing to quote contrary statistics that are now many years out of date) that there are around 1.6 million more EU nationals living in the UK than the other way around. If, as the OP rightly points out, the people who come tend to be young, hard-working and enterprising (whereas many of the Brits living abroad are doddery retirees) then this is a negative for those other countries. It’s a zero-sum game.

    But the real problem with this article is that it portrays the entire immigration debate in false terms. Almost everybody can appreciate the benefits of immigration. Even Leave’s big immigration press release the other day opened with the lines: “Migration brings many benefits to Britain – culturally, socially and economically. We want Britain to continue to benefit from migration.” You may scoff, but they do actually mean it. Wishing to control immigration (so as to maximise the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls) is not the same as being “anti-immigration”, so to pretend this is a simple pro/anti debate in the way this article (and countless others on LDV) does is just missing the point – probably deliberately I have to say.

    Those who are not in favour of completely uncontrolled immigration to the UK are, in principle, just as much “anti-immigration” as Nigel Farage. And that covers almost everybody.

  • Mark, are you in favour of completely uncotnrolled immigration? Because if you aren’t, then when it comes to the people you wouldn’t let in, you are as “anti-immigration” as anybody else.

  • I am grateful to Mark and all Liberal Democrats advocating Remain. I am an EU citizen. I’ve been coming to England almost every year since 1992, first as a student, later as a visiting university professor. I work at a university in the United States, but I like it here in England, and in 2013 I took a part/time permanent university appointment as a Reader, to be here a few months every year. I have never felt foreign here: I always been welcome and well treated by everyone. I feel at home in England, more so than in my EU country of birth, and I’d like to think I contribute to -rather than detract from- England’s prosperity.
    If Leave wins, it would feel weird to become a foreigner in a country I now think of as a second home. If so, I would resign my university position and Leave too, staying full time in the US. I hope a majority of the UK on June 23rd votes to Remain.
    Again, I thank Mark and the LibDems for working so hard to keep the UK hospitable to people like me.

  • – jediweetabix
    Given that I, as British citizen, don’t have the automatic right to live and work in Canada it is not discriminatory that a Canadian doesn’t have the automatic right to live and work here.
    But the really odd thing about your comments is that you don’t seem to have twigged that no-one is offering you what you seem to want. The leading Brexiters – the people who will be in charge if we vote to leave the EU – don’t just want to reduce migrants from the EU they also want to slash the numbers of non-EU migrants.

  • I’m in the Exit camp all be it from a left(ish) wing POV, but I will say that I think it’s a big mistake on Remains part to keep bogging themselves down on a pro-immigration stance. It simply isn’t popular enough and plays to the Rights strongest line of attack.

  • The nonsense in all this is the idea of controlling immigration. The Celts, Romans, Saxons, Normans etc all failed. And the numbers of people moving around the world is vastly increasing as climate change raises sea levels and turns the tropics into uninhabitable deserts. Many of these displaced people will be the descendants of British Empire citizens, a legal status arbitrarily abolished by Ted Heath only 50 years ago. As English speakers brought up to believe in the UK as the “mother country” they may well prefer to live here than any other country. We might have some control over “legal immigration” but certainly have very little over illegal immigration. The three patrol boats that we have, have difficulty patrolling the Dover Straights and we have 10,000 more miles of coastline. Remember the Vikings got here from Norway in small boats, and Tim Severin showed that it is possible that St Brendan sailed to America in curragh, made of a “bulls hide stretched over wickerwork”.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Jun '16 - 1:36am

    As the son of an immigrant who married someone of immigrant origin myself, I am not going to say anything against immigration.But I am not going to say a lot for it now either.Because immigration is or should be good or bad only dependent on the needs of the host community , or the numbers involved , or the level of urgency .It should regularly be value neutral.

    Therefore refugees in need are an emergency. Modest levels or a few immigrants are always welcome. A public service short of staff provides a need. Mostly all this adds up to a yes for the tone of the article.

    But this is not where we are at and the quicker this party got real the better we would do.The trouble is we do not have enough people of immigrant origin making policy. They understand that mostly their forebears did not come here on a whim.The presence of Nick Clegg on this did little because much of his career had been in the EU and he lacked a wider awareness of the issue divorced from his experience.He was a moderate on it though , and talks sense.

    I get angry when I hear politicians speak of the needs of the economy before the needs of the community , of society , and , the individual citizen.

    Sir John Major talked more sense on this and the whole debate , today , than anyone I have heard from all the parties.Against the poison of the xenophobic rhetoric, and realistic about immigration, he said the numbers are a problem.That is correct.

    One of the most unintelligent things about even the mainstream of the debate , is the simple lack of understanding that with , despite the leftward fear to the contrary , an almost entirely government dependent pubilc service model , the resources , numbers of staff etc., do not follow from the numbers waiting for hospitals , schools .

    Equally, with an almost wholly market driven system of providing jobs and homes, it means the promise and hope can turn to dissolusionment and overcrowding.

    We need massive investment in public services. Training of home grown staff so as not to deplete the world of their own, the latter, which must not happen, but could. We need the investment in the soul and fabric of communities experiencing demographic and population changes.We need a unity that starts with honesty.

    We have a moderate policy on this issue. At sometime in recent years our leaders stopped showing it. In an area of few jobs and prospects , such an attitude sounds like the complacency it often is not , but appears to be.

  • Trevor Morton 6th Jun '16 - 8:25am

    The fact that successive UK governments haven’t “managed” immigration, and, to the contrary, deliberately taken a blind-eye to its enforcement, has created the bedrock on which the current sentiment on ‘anti-immigrant’ is building. Add to this a growing anti-Islam sentiment now coupled with the ‘Syrian’ refugee crisis explains the increasing resonance in the native Brit.

  • “A study published in 2014 showed that European migrants pay substantially more in taxes than they take in benefits.”

    Err, no it doesn’t! What it actually shows is that a particular group of EU workers, namely those from the pre-2004 countries contributed an estimated £15bn of the £20bn. Additionally, much of the contribution was post 2005. The CReAM site isn’t particularly searchable, but when I look earlier in the year I remember coming across an article that gave a greater breakdown of that £15bn figure indicated that those who contributed most were from France and Germany…

    Like much of the Leave/Remain debate, the detail is important, just that it doesn’t necessarily support the soundbite…

  • nvelope2003 6th Jun '16 - 12:18pm

    Lorenzo Cherin: If only more people had your wisdom.

    One thing I have noticed is that most of my friends who are immigrants think we are mad to let so many people come in. They say the Britain they loved no longer exists except possibly in the small towns and rural areas where immigrants seem reluctant to live, especially doctors and nurses, which has created an acute shortage in those places because the Government prefers to import health professionals rather than spend money on training local people. How do people in the countries where they come from manage without them ? It is not just Africa where there are desperate shortages but apparently even in places like the Netherlands.

    A few years ago people wanted to move to rural areas but not any more and so the big towns become ever more crowded while in rural areas it is hard to sell a house.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 6th Jun '16 - 11:20pm


    Thank you for your kind comments, I reckon our party has its heart in the right place , which is the left place on this , but needs its head out of the clouds and firmly centred !

  • Rebecca Taylor 7th Jun '16 - 12:54pm

    An estimated 1.8m Brits live permanently in another EU country and a further 0.4m live abroad for part of the year, so 2.2m in total. LibDem voice readers may be surprised to know that large swathes of the public either don’t know this or insist that all Brits abroad are wealthy retired people or job creating entrepreneurs.

    In addition, many are convinced that Brits in other EU countries “aren’t allowed” or “don’t” claim benefits, but that EU citizens can claim in the UK from day one (they can’t and haven’t ever been able to do so).

    The assumption about British immigrants to other EU countries are false; not all pensioners abroad are wealthy, not all working Brits are high paid entrepreneurs and there are thousands of Brits claiming benefits in other EU countries (mainly wealthier ones like France, Germany and Ireland). When you dig further, many people know someone who lives or has lived abroad, but they don’t think of them in the context of this debate.

    And of course my favourite bugbear: we call EU citizens coming to the UK “immigrants” but when we emigrate to another EU country we’re “expats” even if we’re on the dole in Germany!

    The UK benefits from EU free movement (as a whole) because we export pensioners who go and use another country’s healthcare system for an annual flat fee (in Spain it does NOT cover actual costs incurred), and in return we get young healthy working taxpayers we haven’t paid to educate, who aren’t heavy users of the NHS and other public services.

    That doesn’t mean BTW that there aren’t resource allocation issues to be managed in some areas, but that is more a function of government spending either being cut or not adapting quickly enough to population change whether change is internal migration e.g. from the British countryside to cities, or external migration from other EU countries.

    EU free movement is very much a two way street and if you mess with the traffic on a two way street both lanes will be affected.

  • nvelope2003 7th Jun '16 - 9:55pm

    I do not think many people care how many Britons live in other countries. The 2.2 million Britons are spread around Europe not living in one country. Pensions paid by the UK are spent abroad and do not help the UK economy directly.There seems to be a huge antipathy to foreigners living here although most people are polite. Even the BBC has given up trying to pretend otherwise. Of course many immigrants work but there are exceptions like the 80% of Somalians who are alleged to live on benefits. I think some people need to get out more, and not just to the pub.

  • @Rebecca Taylor
    “An estimated 1.8m Brits live permanently in another EU country and a further 0.4m live abroad for part of the year, so 2.2m in total.”

    Overlooking the obvious fact that people spending a few weeks a year in a holiday home cannot realistically be said to be “living” there, the figures you quote are now eight years old and were only ever rough estimates (by the IPPR). They have long since been superseded by much more reliable EUStat census data. See :-

    Why does this statistic refuse to die? Because it forms a key part of Remain’s false claim that the number of EU nationals in the UK is about the same as the number of UK nationals in the EU.

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