Liberals Must Have A Comprehensive Policy On Immigration

They say that there is no war that is more difficult and emotionally draining than a civil war. So it is with ideas. When liberals and progressives fight conservatives, the battles are easy. Each is convinced of their own righteousness and, when they run out of arguments, can simply dismiss the other side as being either Neanderthal or degenerate and therefore not worthy of much consideration. Everyone can go to bed enveloped in their own warm glow of self-belief.

Much more difficult are conflicting ideas that spring from the same ideology. Because resolution is difficult, these issues tend to get quietly swept under the carpet to be addressed some other time that never quite arrives.

I would like to raise one of these issues here. It relates to immigration, refugees and the liberal ideals of our societies. David Cameron has been roundly condemned for simplistically linking language skills with radicalisation. And rightly so. However, those who read Cameron’s article in The Times could see that around the Prime Minister’s cack-handed focus on language skills, he also brought to the fore some real, serious and difficult issues.

The liberal ideal has always advocated a spirit of openness, tolerance and an international outlook. The welcoming of immigrants and refugees has flowed naturally from these principles. However, what has not yet been adequately addressed by liberals is the relationship between multi-cultural societies, liberal ideals and people’s inherent need for a sense of identity.

Liberals have spent decades fighting for the freedom to practice any religion or none, the rights of women, homosexuals and other groups that have been subject in the past to terrible prejudice and discrimination. However, it is undeniable that a proportion of our immigrant population has been brought up in a culture in which such ideas do not fit comfortably.

How should a liberal react to this inherent conflict? Take the liberal view that all cultures are different and should be accepted for what they are provided they can live comfortably side by side? Or take the view that liberal ideals hard fought for for decades need to be defended? That in a secular, liberal society discrimination against women or any other group is unacceptable in any community. That individuals should be allowed to practice any religion or none without fear of being ostracized when they make their own adult choices.

It is easy to duck the issue and talk about integration. But what does that mean? And is it reasonable to expect it to happen? Does integration mean expecting all individuals, families and communities to give up long and deeply held religious and cultural beliefs? Or does it mean that, provided they’re not too obvious, we can turn a blind eye to behaviours among certain communities that we, as liberals, would not tolerate for a minute among others?

In today’s political climate it is both unwise and unreasonable to fudge or ignore these inherent conflict of ideals. No party that argues for an open hearted approach to refugees can be credible without an equally clear position on how to manage the difficult cultural questions that inevitably arise. Ignoring and being silent on these very real issues simply fertilizes the ground on which UKIP-style xenophobia flourishes.

There are no easy or obvious answers. Agree with him of not, Cameron has clearly set out his stall. We must too.

* Joe Zammit-Lucia is a co-founder and trustee of the think tank radix.org.uk and a Lib Dem member

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17 Comments

  • “However, it is undeniable that a proportion of our immigrant population has been brought up in a culture in which such ideas do not fit comfortably.”

    I don’t know if you ever read the popular press, but a fair chunk of the British-born ‘native’ population were also clearly brought up in a culture where “freedom to practice any religion or none, the rights of women, homosexuals and other groups” did not fit comfortably.

    And the answer is the same in both cases – education, discussion, protection for those that need it, and robust defense of people’s rights.

  • Immigration is probably the most emotive issue in politics….

    Cameron’s 2011 promise ( “No ifs; no buts”) to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015 has been a spectacular failure…..

    However, perception is everything…If you asked ‘the man in the street’ which party (excluding UKIP) is the “toughest on immigration”, I’d bet it would be the Tories….

  • An interesting response to Cameron that sets out some liberal dilemmas. But the biggest problem has little to do with migrants or liberalism v conservatism. It’s the electorate. Even when the economy was largely working in peoples favour mass immigration was more tolerated than welcomed. In a climate of economic uncertainty and conflict it becomes harder to put across an open liberal ideal to voters. Borders are closing, attitudes hardening and nationalism is edging out internationalism as the force shaping politics. It’s all very worrying.

  • Alex Macfie 19th Jan '16 - 9:39am

    Regarding social norms and multiculturalism, there isn’t really any liberal conflict. The main point of liberalism is to support individual rights. For a liberal, this “individual” is different from the Thatcherite idea of the individual, where the only conceivable oppressor is the state. Liberals believe that individual rights warrant protection not just from the state, but from other potentially oppressive forces, which may include family and community. There can be no free pass for particular communities to take away people’s rights: that would be a fundamentally illiberal idea.

  • Conor Clarke 19th Jan '16 - 10:19am

    @ Alex Macfie

    ‘There can be no free pass for particular communities to take away people’s rights: that would be a fundamentally illiberal idea.’

    I still think the liberal conflict is real.

    Community, heritage, culture, and individual identity within that context is important to most individuals. Political and personal rights to express identity within that context are hallmarks of a liberal society.

    But sometimes the joint expression of identity within that context leads to communal/cultural norms which are illiberal.

    How do we respond to the fact that illiberal outcomes can arise from the practice of liberal toleration? That is the question.

    I do agree with your answer, however, that there can be no free pass.

  • There’s so much wrong about this I don’t know where to begin. There is no coherent argument against letting people live where they want.

  • Samuel Griffiths 19th Jan '16 - 1:56pm

    I’m really pleased to see this discussion happening in such an open way. it’s refreshing to see it not shoved under the carpet.

    The conflict is indeed real: If you want to build a tolerant society, can you be tolerant of intolerance? If the answer is yes, then you defeat your objective and if the answer is no then you also defeat your objective. I often try to tackle the issue from the other side. What sort of values do I want to support? – what methods are required to achieve those values?

    If I am being entirely honest, I feel like modern day liberals have gone a little soft. It is perhaps time to accept that standing up for our beliefs is quite compatible with being welcoming to other cultures. We just have to be willing to accept our role as cultural imperialists when those views disagree – we do after all want to ensure these freedoms are protected, right? Even at the cost of not tolerating intolerance.

    We shouldn’t need to choose between looking after the international in-need and supporting our own values.

  • “There is no coherent argument against letting people live where they want.”
    On the surface that statement looks reasonable. But we can use a couple of examples that highlight flaws and how easy it is to destabilise an area with an ingress of a vastly different population.
    Several university towns have recently gone hell for leather to provide student accommodation. But problems have begun to emerge. Private landlords have bought whole streets of terraced property, converting them into flats for students. There are now massive complaints from long established residents, because their once peaceful residential area has been turned into ‘studentville’, with the associated noise, beer bottles in the street, late party music, and inevitable pizza boxes and vomit.
    There are certain parts of Cumbria, that have almost no signs of habitation from Monday to Thursday, until the second home owners finish work on Friday and fill the village for two or three days, before it becomes deserted again. These second home owners financially squeeze out the families that need housing in that area.
    So we could modify the original reasonable argument and say,
    There is no coherent argument against letting people [buy / rent / convert / weekend occupy / and live ] where they want.
    But,.. don’t be surprised by the aftermath of a vexed, fractured, irritated and destabilised community afterwards. Be mindful, that what seems liberal and reasonable at first can convert peace and stability into a hell on earth for many. And the evidence of that fact comes from your very own Chris Huhne who once said that we should allow freedom of immigration,…. but limit it in the South East?
    So even the once potential leader of the LibDem party clearly understood that a reasonable and tolerant stance of letting people live where they want, works just fine,….. until the day it doesn’t. ?

  • @Indigo
    “And the evidence of that fact comes from your very own Chris Huhne who once said that we should allow freedom of immigration,…. but limit it in the South East?”

    It wasn’t just Huhne who said that – it was Lib Dem party policy at the time (2010) and Nick Clegg was saying exactly the same thing. At one point, Clegg went on Andrew Marr and declared that one of the reasons immigration should be curtailed in the south east was that the region had less water per head than Syria or the Sudan.

    If Nigel Farage had said such a thing, charges of racism would have instantly started flying in these quarters. But Nick Clegg? Not even a gentle dog whistle, of course.

    This tells us much about why the whole immigration debate is so toxic in this country. Lib Dems have spent years now accusing all and sundry from other parties (and none) of being racist, even when they are saying things that are identical to what Lib Dems say.

  • James Ridgwell 19th Jan '16 - 10:48pm

    Hi Joe, thanks for raising this important issue. We probably need to talk about it a bit more than we do at present. Absolutely agree we can’t be credible on refugee policy etc without having answers on the challenges you have ably set out. Ultimately, liberal democrat (little l and d) societies exist due to the majority of the population having ‘liberal’ views on the rules of the game, ie rule of law made in Parliament with the democratic process being followed and various basic rights respected. There are also the issues you have raised wrt illiberal views on women, and other minority groups. It seems logical that more people coming from largely illiberal societies will have illiberal worldviews compared to the average in existing liberal societies. There is, in my view, the chance that too many people too soon entering from a illiberal society could therefore undermine the liberal nature of the recipient society. I certainly agree that integration is vital and I am clear in my own mind that a liberal society should be muscular in insisting on its values being followed by those within it, whoever they are – there can be no tolerance for intolerance in a liberal society. Gareth – also helpful to draw our attention to our party’s agreed policy – a quick glance through that doc shows that it is a real attempt to balance the opportunities and challenges of immigration, and it is nowhere near (in my view quite rightly) being an open borders free-for-all.

  • @indigo
    ‘someone moved house and it annoyed me for no reason except my own prejudices’ is not a coherent reason.

  • Maybe the policy review can start with the question of British people who are denied the right to bring their non-EU foreign spouse to the UK because of income levels. I think there are about 17,000 who have been separated which is a sizeable number.
    (I know of people in the UK who haven’t worked for decades.Their support is not cut off because of any failure to contribute, in fact they are given extras such as pension credits)
    Generally immigrants work and run businesses. Over the Christmas break in England I became friendly with an Indian newspaper seller-in England to work, with no pension.

  • AC Trussell 20th Jan '16 - 3:16pm

    To repeat Samuel Griffiths : “I’m really pleased to see this discussion happening in such an open way. it’s refreshing to see it not shoved under the carpet.”
    It would be useful to have a coherent policy that could be stated to the general public.

    “David Cameron has been roundly condemned for simplistically linking language skills with radicalisation”
    The people that attacked him(Cameron) used the example of the Muslim people that went to Syria to support Dae’sh – or whatever they are called, and stated that these people spoke good English. I think the question is whether their mothers- or fathers understood English and knew what they were saying and reading. And could have deterred them from the extremism?

    I think that when forming a policy for any type of immigration, thought should be given to why they are coming here.
    Whether it is getting away from war, injustice, financial, or just seeking a better life.
    The way of life and history of this country (admitted some not so good) is what has made it possible to be able to help. And they should accept that!
    To try to live with the same rules, and way of life- in this country, as though they are in the same country they have left, cannot be expected… because it has failed in these terms. That is why they are here!
    Constant change is what has made this country as free and liberal as it is, and it is the influx of foreign ideas and ways that has helped. But it must be expected/required? of all immigrants to fit in to the ways of the people that have made their better situation possible.
    “When in Rome” as they say.
    The numbers arriving must roughly balance with housing, schools health services etc; or the public will not accept the situation and the reactions can get nasty; as we have seen!

  • AC Trussell
    “I think that when forming a policy for any type of immigration, thought should be given to why they are coming here.
    Whether it is getting away from war, injustice, financial, or just seeking a better life.”
    From outside the EU immigration is heavily restricted now. Only highly skilled migrants get work permits and Britain doesn’t take in many refugees.

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