The Tories have decided to make immigration a cornerstone of their mid-term build up. Electorally-speaking, I suppose there are reasons to do this. Given the perceived (I would argue, overstated) threat from UKIP, and the presence of Lynton 'Dog-Whistle' Crosbie on the team, this is only to be expected.
A few questions:
Firstly, is immigration something that politicians need to worry about for reasons other than electoral gain?
I'd say it is. I buy the 'free movement of peoples is good for the economy' line. I'd also argue that, in the highly devalued currency of what constitutes 'illiberalism', denying people the right to cross borders and live/work where they choose is a good deal more important than a lot of the alleged 'end-of-a-thousand- years-of-history' infringements that liberal commentators are keen to highlight.
I write this with the ongoing Leveson debate ringing in our ears.
As a matter of principle, it remains unstated, I would argue, because it makes a hypocrite of many of the people who selectively use civil-liberties arguments when it suits them.
But, on the other side of the argument, what about some of the poorest people in UK society? Does large scale migration damage social capital? I'd say it does, often very seriously, and that this argument is hugely under-made partly because it hits the least articulate and most poorly-represented people in the UK. Similarly, it hardly makes the labour market a more comfortable place for those same people either - a non-issue if what passes for public debate is anything to go by. Is an argument that the Labour leadership make sotto voce when they want the unions to buy into a slightly tougher line on this subject, but that's the only time I ever hear it. Is there some kind of liberal omertà on this subject? And is that sustainable?
Secondly, does the fact that politicians such as Cameron and Farage are jostling to own this issue create new dangers? Is demagoguery a worry here or is it simply a reflection of sentiment that is already in the country? Does the jockeying in the Westminster Village alter the the way people think? I would tentatively argue that it probably doesn't. Does the way newspapers report it? I'd strongly argue that it does.
Thirdly, the big question: Does the emergence of this issue, along with a few other worrying factors such as the tensions pulling at the EU, and the decline in trust between the people and the various social and capitalist pillars of our society, mean that we're living in dangerous times?
We take our open society and liberal democracy for granted, but is it really going to be something that we all spend all of our lives enjoying? I suppose that, If I'm lucky, I'll get another 40 years with my boots on. My children will get a lot longer I hope. Will that time see my country at war with its neighbours? Will it see another age of informers, secret police, patrolled borders, a real hungry economic collapse and extreme political movements?
In the chapter 'The Fall of Liberalism' in Eric Hobsbawm's 'The Age of Extremes' we see a collapse of liberal institutions throughout much of the globe. I hope you take this prompt to dig it out and read it for yourselves so I won't spoil it for you, apart from to say that he concludes that 'Fascism-as-catalyst' was really very far from being the sole cause of the gathering catastrophe that followed the 1918 Armistice in his view.
Hobsbawm discusses the fiction of 'the people' (one that liberal bourgeois society buys into but that sociologists and politicians often don't) that was tested and found wanting in the 1930s. That is, the people who have an identifiable common interest that can be met - with tensions resolved - by an agreed political process. Now, we haven't seen a slump on the inter-war scale, whatever newspapers try to tell you. Nor do we have the kind of nationalalst tensions we had then, though a break up the EU could fix that quite easily. But The 1930s didn't see migration on this scale either. If politicians are to have a credible policy that restrains immigration effectively, it will involve measures that will serverly strain bourgeois liberalism and leave it at the mercy of populism. It would need proper expensive border control, work permits and various measures to identify people without the correct 'papers'. It would involve internment. Sorry to sound alarmist, be we're talking of camps here - on a scale that we've not really braced ourselves for to date.
Why is no-one discussing any of this? And why do anti-immigration politicians not come clean about the need for ID cards, databases, arbitrary detention, deportations and large-scale surveillance? And why do those of us who want to live in a world where free movement is possible and easy not acknowledge the price that is paid - often by the sections of society that are least likely to vote?
It seems to me to be a very odd debate.