NEW POLL: What’s the liberal response to immigration?

There’s a typically forthright article in today’s Times by David Aaronovitch excoriating all three major political parties for their pusillanimous response to the anti-immigration movement represented by Labour’s Frank Field and the Tories’ Nicholas Soames. His ire was provoked by BBC Radio 4’s Beyond Westminster programme (available here on iPlayer for the next few days) and specifically the responses of the politicians interviewed:

Not one of the pols, Chris Huhne, of the Lib Dems, Damian Green, of the Tories, or Phil Woolas, of Labour, could find anything good to say about immigration, except in passing on quickly to how tough they would all be. Mr Huhne: “Clearly we made a big mistake in allowing entry for new entrants to the EU when others didn’t.” But didn’t we get a lot of talent, he was asked. “Yes, we did,” he conceded, “but there is a pace of change issue and an absorption issue…” Oh heroic Huhne! And so we should have a “points system as operated in Australia” and – incidentally – as recommended by Migration Watch. … all [our pusillanimous partymen are] now involved in a revolting public auction to show who can be the “toughest” on the economic migrant – that miscreant who comes over and does our jobs and pays our taxes and adds to our pool of talent.

Aaronovitch has a point: most politicians, however liberal and progressive (and there are few much more liberal or progressive than Chris Huhne), find themselves on the defensive when it comes to immigration. Unlike media commentators, most politicians find themselves constantly berated by constituents whose discontent with council/government services is fuelled by media-inspired hysteria that it’s all the fault of Johnny Foreigner.

Aaronovitch didn’t, for example, choose to quote from this parliamentary speech by Chris last year, which sums up the party’s position of supporting managed immigration:

Immigration has brought enormous benefits to this country, economic, social and cultural. We must continue to be an open and tolerant society that looks out at the world with confidence, and not turn in on ourselves, fearing the phantoms of xenophobia. But if we are to sustain that vision, which has been so much a part of our own history and success, it must be on the basis of two strong conditions. The first is the integration of immigrant communities in our society on the basis of our common language and shared values, and the second is management of the system that controls our borders in the interests of all of us. On both those objectives, the Government have fallen down lamentably. The Liberal Democrats merely hope that the points-based immigration system will be a step towards the remedying of past failure.

My liberal instinct – as someone fully in favour of the free movement of labour, goods, capital and services – is for minimal/zero border controls and unlimited (im)migration. But I’m in the responsibility-free position of no longer being an elected politician. The truth is, though, that unless local and national governments predict and plan then public services begin to buckle under the strain of random population swells, causing problems both for the new settlers and existing communities.

Of course immigration has been generally positive for this country, and the vast majority of those who’ve come to the UK will become net contributors to the economy; but there is an up-front cost, and it’s naïve not to acknowledge it.

All this prompts me to ask you, LDV’s readers, what you think should be the basis of the UK’s response to immigration. Should we:

>> Open the borders, and impose no immigration restrictions
>> Have managed immigration, eg through a points system
>> Operate an annual cap on immigration, with work-permits strictly limited to 4-years
>> Close the borders, and accept no more immigrants

Those are the choices; eyes right to cast your votes in the poll; and feel free to mount a write-in campaign for your own preferred solution below…

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This entry was posted in Voice polls.


  • Aaronovitch stopped being an interesting commentator a couple of years ago (about the time of Iraq, in fact) and started being just an aggressive nit-picker with nothing much new to add. Shame really.

  • Andrew Duffield 13th Jan '09 - 11:50pm

    Spot on. ‘People create Wealth’ should be the first law of economics.

    It is purely the successive failure of government to collect and recycle that wealth, thus relieving public service and housing pressures in migrant areas, which gives immigration a bad name.

  • Open borders, but without luring immigrants with a higher social security benefits than their country of departure. I’m afraid I can’t accept any of the given alternatives.

  • Andrew Duffield 14th Jan '09 - 9:34am

    Interestingly, all the evidence shows that very few people migrate half-way around the world for social security benefits. The vast majority of migrants want to work hard and improve their lot rather than simply subsist.

    Similarly, few if any Brits cross internal UK boundaries for lower council tax, free prescriptions or zero tuition fees – despite that being a somewhat easier migratory proposition for them.

    But let’s not have rational evidence getting in the way of policy making.

  • David Allen 14th Jan '09 - 2:40pm


    “if any immigrant breaks the law … then that is … the fault of … government”.

    What about if any native Briton breaks the law?

    The State is always to blame for everything bad that ever happens!

  • stick to the subject, David, we’re talking about immigration and immigrants.

    The basic rule is that individuals are responsible for their own actions (and inaction), while the government is the department of the state with is responsible for all actions (and inaction).

    If anything ever goes wrong then somewhere along the line something has failed: there are never any excuses, only reasons.

  • David Allen 14th Jan '09 - 5:52pm

    Sorry Oranjepan, I couldn’t resist the legpull. And anyway, it was you and Lynne Featherstone who first raised the issue of the role of the State – and in my view, rightly.

    Immigration creates gainers and losers amongst the non-immigrant population. It’s wrong to castigate the losers as racists, if what has happened is that immigrants have priced them out of their jobs, or competed with them for scarce housing. Since the economy as a whole has gained from immigration, Government should tax the gainers (us middle classes who get their plumbing done cheaper) and find ways to subsidise the losers (those local plumbers who have been undercut by the Poles – or at any rate, the localities they live in, which are suffering stresses on local services).

    The losers are quite right to cry “unfair”! Instead of driving them into the arms of the BNP, we should have policies to help them out.

    Julian H points out that the private sector will effortlessly dive in and provide more toyshops where there is increased demand, but the same doesn’t apply to jobs, or to housing in high-immigration areas of big cities. As in so much else, we really must take a pragmatic and balanced view of the role of the State. The private sector cannot do it all!

  • So can an advocate of “open borders” tell me what I tell a constituent whose children attend a school where 20 Polish children (with little or no English) arrive on the first day of term, creating significant disruption.

    And at half-term 6 of them leave; but 4 more arrive. And three weeks later 5 more arrive. Etc etc etc

  • David Allen 15th Jan '09 - 6:44pm

    Julian H: your point on jobs is right in a broad-brush overall sense. But if all the immigrants are plumbers, it’s scant consolation to the out-of-work non-immigrant plumber to be told that there are lots of jobs going for people who can teach English to plumbers’ children!

    That is not to say that we have to reject immigrant inflows /outflows and free markets. But we have to look at the costs to those who suffer, as well as the benefits to those who don’t. If we’re not prepared to recognise that the “people scrapping over scarce resources” (Lynne Featherstone’s words) are being hurt, and that we need to help them, then we’re being inhumane and illiberal.

    Andrew Hickey, you might or might not have correctly identified the sniff of racism in one of Laban Tall’s seven paragraphs. But how about not using that as an excuse for ignoring the other six paragraphs, which contained some pretty strong arguments on the social dislocation and violent conflict that mass global migration fluxes can cause? Notably and especially including, of course, mass migration and colonial settlement by white Europeans!

  • David Allen 16th Jan '09 - 6:45pm


    If I can take the liberty of trying to sum up your views in a (glib?) one-liner, you are sympathetic to those who lose out economically as a result of immigration, but not to those who claim to lose out culturally or socially. That, you say, sounds like racism. Well, I agree, it often can mean racism. But not always.

    My old aunt told me of her life in the backstreets of Coventry in the sixties. First, one Asian family moved into her street. In those days, that was a sensation. A few racist white families immediately moved out. At that stage my aunt thought they were just idiots and that it was no loss.

    The empty houses were all sold to Asians. That rattled more of the white residents, who in turn began to move away. Then, of course, the local amenities began to change, with chip shops giving way to curry houses. In those days, Brits didn’t eat curry, and many Asians didn’t try to speak English.

    Suddenly my aunt found that her local community of friendship had broken up. She didn’t blame the Asians, but she didn’t think it had been right to let so many in so fast. More recently, others have said the same about Polish immigration. I think that’s what Chris Huhne was talking about when he spoke of “a pace of change issue and an absorption issue”. (To be clear, in my view this argument is only truly valid for really high immigration fluxes, such as the surge from Poland, and not for the gentler net influx that we have currently.)

    Now, you may say that I’m unduly downplaying racism here. Well, it’s a tricky argument, but, even if you acknowledge the pervasiveness and destructiveness of racism, that doesn’t mean you must react by defiantly insisting on open borders. If you know, from sociological study, that rapid and large – scale cultural mixing often leads to violent racial conflict, what do you do about it?

    If you let it happen, and people suffer from the resulting conflict, then sure, the violent racists are at fault. But, aren’t you also at fault?

  • Andrew – OK, I take all your points – thanks!

  • “Native Brits” by which you presumably mean those decended from immigrants from 100 years ago rather than 40.

    Given that there is strong evidence that the one of the builders of Stonehenge was an Italian migrant then the pure-bred Native Brits will be pretty thin on the ground.

  • I voted for “managed immigration, eg through a points system”. Not really in the mood for a lengthly explanation. But really it depends. Many immigrants, & I include a large number of asylum-seekers in this, can make a worthwhile contribution & I’d take them over a lot of native-born Britons who do nothing of any use & probably never will.

    But at the same time, I do not believe in unrestricted migration, as there are undoubtedly millions of people wanting to come here & we simply do not have the physical space to accomodate them without damage to our environment, which as a green-minded person I will not countenance.

    We should, in my opinion, allow asylum seekers to work & admit some even if their lives are not in danger. But only some, & we should not let adherence to libertarian dogma get in the way of operating some kind of selection process. A points-based system is clunking & silly but it’s the least worst option, certainly far better than admitting the massive numbers who would come here if they could.

    Overpopulation is an issue that should concern us, & while it’s obviously a worldwide matter it should be borne in mind that people in the west tend to have a higher environmental impact.

    Additionally, in order for small-government liberalism to work, we need some idea of coherence which does not rely on the state, such as the ties of local communities & a thriving civic society. There is nothing to prevent people of any nationality or race from being assimilated, but it is naive in the extreme to think it will just happen by magic or that it somehow won’t matter in the brave new neoliberal world in which we’re all just consumers thrown together by accident & nothing matters but a balance sheet.

    It is hard for me to countenance restrictions on immigration because I like most of the immigrants I’ve met, but a points based system of some variety is what we’re going to have to have given that it’s hardly an unmixed blessing. It is a messy way to go about things, but a dogmatic libertarian policy would be a hideous failure.

  • Most people voted for my solution or “operate an annual cap on immigration”. It seems the pro-immigration at all costs brigade aren’t all that strong.

  • I wonder whether the results of this survey (and comments) would be any different on Tory or Labour sites.

  • I will insist that, for example, forced marriage & the sort of homophobia & misogyny commonly found in certain “communities” should not be tolerated. This is a view which I should hope was universal amongst liberals.

    But in order to confront these tendencies, it is necessary to have a thoroughgoing process of assimilation. This cannot, in my view, happen with an open door policy because the number of would-be immigrants is huge.

    I do not accept the “arguments” for so called eco towns. If we did not have a soaring population there would be no need for them. I see your point that high rise living can be tolerable, & there’s no need to repeat the idiocy of the 1950s in mass producing council estates & making tenants live there.

    But at the same time, I would not want to rip up planning regulations, as this would prove environmentally harmful in obvious ways. We have seen how property speculators behave. It is ugly, which is why I think there must be restrictions on out of town shopping centres as well as the sort of housing developments disfiguring cities such as this. The ideologues should stick to reading Spiked Online, & I’ll support policies which have a chance of working, such as Newcastle upon Tyne LDs’ housing policy which was announced a while back.

    I also take the point about immigrants having a culture of hard work, social respect & generally better behaviour than is found amongst many Britons. But let’s kid ourselves, it’s rare that you’ll find a liberal in certain immigrant communities (Exceptions made for groups such as the Iranians of my acquaintance who have fled theocracy & who would quite merrily give Galloway & his fellow apologists the beating they deserve).

    This is not some reductionist Islamophobic statement, since there are progressive Muslims & I am glad of it. But in their “civil war” against the reactionaries, they need the support of a secular state which is for integration & against cuddling up to whatever unrepresentative extremists it can find, New Labour-style. This requires a broad front against “faith” schools, ghettoisation, the automatic deference to the religious of whatever stripe, & so on. But all these would in my opinion be undermined by an open door policy. Such a policy would lead to huge levels of immigration, & no mistaking.

    My instincts are welcoming towards newcomers. But I do not think that such a policy is tenable. I have really no idea which people to restrict, but I cannot simply stand idly by while the population of this country soars. I have been made to confront the issue for several reasons.

    I feel as if I become alienated from people whenever immigration is mentioned, especially because most of those I meet are reactionary on the issue & vilify all immigrants indiscriminately.

    But having said all that, there should still be a greater focus on ESOL & the removal of restrictions on asylum seekers’ work. As I said, it isn’t easy staking out my position but I have alighted on what I consider the least worst option.

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