Comment: Never be ashamed of immigrant Britain

After 'bigotgate', many of us became reluctant to point out that prejudice still plays a part in the immigration debate.

By Ian Dunt

Today, the immigration cap was put into place. After years of promotion and planning, a policy that was once considered barmy and counter-productive has become official government policy. There are no howls of derision, because the only lobby with any weight campaigning for immigration is the business lobby, whose support most of us can do without.

But there should be howls of derision. There is a simple and plain truth about Britain today: it needs immigration. We have a rapidly aging population. The number of people aged over 65 has risen steadily over the last 25 years, as the population aged under 16 decreases. By 2034, 23% of the population will be over 65 compared to 18% under 16.


That's a big problem, because we'll have fewer people working and paying taxes to support people who are unable to work and pay taxes. To make things worse, the fastest population increase is among the very eldest - those aged 85 and older. Their numbers have doubled since 1984 with advances in medical science. By 2034 their numbers are projected to be 2.5 times larger. That's 3.5 million - five per cent of the population.

This demographic timebomb means the immigration cap is going to cost you money. The Institute for Public Policy Research predicted a shortfall in public finances to pay for our aging population on the back of the cap, requiring a rise of up to 9p in income tax by 2036.

But the real cost comes not in what we must pay but in what we lose. In 2006, immigration contributed a net £6 billion to the economy. You wouldn't have known that, given the last government report, by the Lords economic affairs committee, which insisted immigration was neutral economically. Its chair, Tory Lord Wakeham, said it was "preposterous and irrelevant" to include the overall impact of gross domestic product (GDP) as a key measure. That's a strange view, but no stranger than refusing to countenance the idea that immigration radically reduces the cost of public services, another of the committee's errors.

The damage we do now won't just affect us immediately. It will affect us into the future. Every day we are waking up and shooting ourselves in the foot. Theresa May's decision to hand the UK Border Agency (UKBA) control over post-study job certificates brings bureaucracy to a system that has served us well over the years - attracting wealthy Chinese and Indian students, creating ambassadors for Britain in some of the most mobile and well-educated sectors of the world's population and inviting the smartest, cleverest people in the world to set up a business here in the UK.

Look to the Premier League for the prime example of what immigration can offer Britain: Once the European Court of Justice ruled in 1995 that restricting the free movement of football players contravened EU law, we never looked back. We are now recognised for the most beautiful, exciting, watchable football in the world. Fans in Asia change their sleeping patterns to follow it, villagers in Africa know where Sunderland is. If you want to be posh, you call it 'soft power'. In reality, it's just international influence. It happens to be invaluable.

That dynamism is precisely what Britain risks losing if it continues down this barren political route towards arbitrary numbers, whether it be Cameron's obsession with the "tens of thousands" or the bizarre and meaningless media obsession with the population reaching 70 million. By being the kind of country which can encourage and accommodate talent from across the world, we can become the world leader in business, arts, science, culture and sport.

There are problems with immigration, but they have relatively simple answers. People are concerned that immigrants undercut domestic wages and labour standards. That's a good concern, a valid concern. The solution is strong trade unions. Dubious European court rulings such as Viking and Laval, which allow workers from other EU states to work in the UK for the pay level of their home country, must be taken on and defeated. Standards must be maintained.

We're also uncomfortable seeing the ghettos of (predominantly) Muslims in urban centres. We don't like it when people burn poppies or conduct forced marriages. The solution is easy: The law. Just follow the law. It's sometimes exasperating to do so, but it's the only civilised response. The alternative - the state telling people where to live, for instance - is statist lunacy.

Lurking beneath the veneer of respectability and civility in which immigration arguments are couched, there often lies an assumption about the good society, that it should be pure and unified, that it should look the same. In a horrific turnaround, Gordon Brown's 'bigotgate' gaffe really turned the table on pro-immigration advocates. It made it politically impossible to even suggest that prejudice or bigotry were often at the heart of people's view of immigration.

Unfortunately, it often is. The sense of 'the other' is at the bottom of many anti-immigrant statements, and some of the prejudice that lurks in this country is truly staggering. We all know it. We've all heard it. We've all realised that the editorial policy of several tabloids is specifically designed to separate our communities. We should stop being afraid and make ourselves clear: Millions of people in this country are avowedly, proudly, utterly pro-immigration.

Where there is prejudice on one side there is also something aesthetic on the other. There is the sense that immigration is beautiful. A multicultural Britain, a multicoloured Britain, with its flavours and music, its carnivals and variety - that's the Britain I was born in. When I feel my love for my country, that's the country I'm talking about, not some stale black and white slide show from World War Two. It's a beautiful Britain and one we should be proud of. But regardless of whether we're proud of it or not, it's here to stay. That thought should prove reassuring amid the deafening chorus of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Speakers Corner are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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