Saturday, 18 October 2014

Social capital and the problem with immigration - some thoughts


Immigration is a problem. OK, you can call it a challenge, a significant policy issue or some other 'slightly-dodging-the-issue' form of words but the truth is that people – voters – are bothered about immigration. We know this because they tell us so in polling and because, if any of us have any ears, we hear it every day. Whether it’s a casual racist remark in a queue to go through security at Leeds Bradford Airport or the comments that trail behind crime reports, stories about ‘multiculturalism’ and descriptions of events at mosques.

The problem is that, whatever people say, immigration really isn’t an economic problem. There really isn’t much – or indeed any – substantial research evidence showing that immigration has a negative impact on levels of employment, economic growth or other measures of economic performance. So when Jonathan Portes reports this he is right:

“The research found evidence of a positive and significant association between increases in employment of migrant workers and labour productivity. It found that recruiting from outside the UK had allowed employers to fill skilled and specialist roles and enabled some organisations to expand. Employers reported that migrants' skills are often complementary to, rather than substituting for, those of UK born employees.”

However, this really isn’t the problem (or challenge or significant policy issue) at all nor is this simply a case of people being fed misleading information by politicians and the media. A positive economic impact simply isn’t sufficient for people to accept the social changes that immigration implies. Yet much of what we might call ‘immigration-positive’ research and comment is dominated by economic considerations, arguments over statistics and accusations that opposition to immigration is essentially racist.

If we are to understand immigration and, more importantly, develop policies that respond to the genuine concerns of very many people, then we need to get a much better grip on the sociology of immigration. We need to get a better idea of how immigration affects existing communities, how those communities react to immigration and how we manage migration so as to give a greater chance of that community reaction being positive rather than negative. By focusing on the economics of migration we have missed completely the real driver behind those community concerns that some politicians exploit.

Indeed it is the need to reduce negative social impact that should drive immigration policies and controls rather than the prevailing preference for points-based systems based on a more-or-less arbitrary decision as to whether the ‘skills’ of the immigrant are ‘needed’. The evidence, both from polling and from qualitative studies, shows consistently that worries about immigration relate inversely to people’s exposure to immigrants. I would add that my personal view is that Britain’s current anti-immigrant feeling is substantially driven by the migration from EU accession countries being to parts of the UK that have had limited prior experience of immigration.

None of this gets us any closer to a basis for setting policy - assuming we’re going to plonk for somewhere on the continuum from totally closed borders to totally open borders. Regardless of the economic case for immigration, the potential social negatives (the cost of which may not be wholly contained in an economic model of migration) require some degree of control. And that will mean that some people will not be allowed to migrate into the UK.

And there is a good argument for striking a balance in terms of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. I know we like to talk about how many different languages are spoken in our communities (this isn’t new – I remember the Principle of Bedford FE College saying just this in 1983) but the breakdown in social capital implicit in that heterogeneity damages both the immigrant andreceiving communities:

“People in ethnically fragmented communities have lower levels of interpersonal trust; lower levels of civic, social, and charitable engagement; less efficient provision of public goods; more sluggish economic growth; and lower levels of happiness and general satisfaction. It seems that the more diversity we experience, the lower our quality of life is.”

The risk we run with open borders is that they meet a short-term economic need but in doing so provide the seeds for more sluggish development in the communities where those ‘needed’ immigrants settle. Indeed, we should recognise that some degree of homogeneity is essential if a community is to develop the institutions, connections and structures essential to building social capital. Put more bluntly, the people within a neighbourhood have to share more than the fact of living in that neighbourhood if it is to become community rather than merely a place.

The unanswered question here is how we determine the point at which we set our migration policy. This has to be where the economic benefits of immigration exceed any negative impact on educational attainment, health or crime. Not just because those negatives carry a cost that isn’t necessarily picked up by the employers of immigrant labour (the prime beneficiaries of the economic benefit) but because poorer schools, health and community safety are reflections of a dysfunctional neighbourhood, of the breakdown in the social capital needed for the long-term.

Finally, there has to be some connection between the expectations of the current demos and the actions of government. In a democracy this should be a statement of the obvious but I fear it is not so – too often the response from public officialdom to concerns about immigration is to say ‘there, there - don’t worry’ or else to suggest that the person expressing concerns is simply a bigot. A further type of response is to flood the individual with (essentially meaningless) statistics accompanied with the implication that they are some kind of idiot.

We need to have immigration controls for the very simple reason that the public – the demos – demands that we control the arrival of culturally-distinct people into the neighbourhoods where they live. This can’t be dismissed as racism, bigotry or prejudice (although all those things may be present on occasion) but rather should be seen as articulating the collapse of social capital in many neighbours that large scale immigration brings about. People are not idiots but are reflecting concerns about the loss of community in their words and choices. And government too often fails to pick up those concerns in defining policies (locally and nationally).

I believe that immigration enhances our nations bringing new ideas, attitudes, food, drink, music and dance to pour into the English cultural melting-pot. We are a vastly better society for having welcomed generations of migrants to our shores. And I don’t want to live in a place where we push people away, where we don’t offer sanctuary and where there’s a preference for a sort of sclerotic monocultural numbness. But if we want migration to work for everyone, we’ve got to manage it, to try and mitigate how it can damage social capital and to direct our attentions to integrating all the wonderful, hard-working people who have come to make their lives in our great country.


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