Controlling immigration is good for democracy

Publication date: 2016

Professor Tom Simpson writes a piece for Standpoint Magazine arguing that controlling immigration is good for democracy, and capping numbers is basic for sovereignty.

LincolnshireA market in Boston, Lincolnshire: The town, which has faced high levels of EU migration, voted 75 per cent Leave.

(Credit: Oscar Johns /

One of the ways in which “progressive” thought has unconsciously inherited the structures of Christian morality, while evacuating it of content it finds uncongenial, is in the Augustinian doctrine of original sin. This holds that, however good the effects, and whatever respectable reason may be given for it, every human action is in fact motivated partly by human pride. It merits judgment.

Medieval theology had seven cardinal sins. “Progressive” thought has a more economical three — racism, sexism and homophobia — but they turn out to be capacious categories. Not trolling, but rather, I think, in a moment of discombobulated candour, one contributor to a prominent political blog, Open Democracy, wrote of discovering that he lives in “a petty-minded island nation with fascist tendencies”. Leavers have been generally accused of racism or being in bed with racists. And this because many think that controlling immigration matters.

As it happens, the polling evidence is that the dominant reason for voting Leave was democratic, namely the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. But the second most given reason was the desire to regain control over immigration (33 per cent to 49 per cent, Ashcroft; 34 per cent to 53 per cent, ComRes). Those figures almost certainly understate the level of concern, when you consider the consistent underestimation of the level of popular support for views that are socially unacceptable in polite society, such as voting Tory in 2015, or voting Leave. As well as playing a major role in the campaign, concerns over immigration have been key to the rise of UKIP, a fact that created the political pressure for the referendum in the first place.

The idea that fascists lurk under every stone is one of the enduring myths of left-wing student politics, perpetuated because it gives a delicious sense of urgency to pub discussion. “March Against Fascism” stickers pop up by cashpoints in Oxford at regular intervals. It is a peculiarly irrational concern in Britain. The history is that in the 1930s we kept our heads when Europe did not. Oswald Mosley’s legacy is of having inspired Wodehouse’s satire, Roderick Spode. The only person close to a real-life fascist I have come across was Marine Le Pen, in a Union debate designed to shock. She had to be imported.

All racism is deplorable, and some have been emboldened by the referendum result to act despicably. But racism was with us before the referendum; it was a contained problem; and that is unlikely to change. As Brendan O’Neill has observed, the kind of hate crime that makes the national news in France is the attempted burning down of a mosque, which happened in July in Toulouse. Here, it is horrid words on a bus. So the general accusation of racism against Leavers smacks more of ideology than thought. Nonetheless, the debate over immigration was one of the sad shortfalls of the referendum campaign. Beyond the mudslinging over Cameron’s broken pledge to reduce annual net migration below 100,000, there was little explanation of why the numbers matter. What is needed is clear articulation of the reasons why, without any hint of racism, you could be concerned about immigration.

The best attempt to make this case so far has been on the money. Roughly, immigration reduces how much pie you get, in terms of wages and public services. This is important. But it is not the heart of the problem. The real issue — or rather, issues — are democratic. They concern what it is to be a people who govern themselves. In our case, it concerns what it is for the people who live in Britain to make up the British people.

Take the money side first. There is a growing body of research investigating the effects of immigration on the UK. As with most things economic, the picture is mixed: there are some negative effects and some positive. On balance, the positive effects look as if they outweigh the negative, at least in aggregate. At the most general level, immigrants probably pay more in tax than they cost in public services, to the tune of around £5 billion per year — not huge, but not consistent with the immigrants-draining-our-purse story.

The aggregate benefits of immigration are now close to irrelevant, however. As is widely acknowledged, the referendum revealed an alarmingly divided country, with old party loyalties fractured and economic inequality the strongest predictor of voting choice. The haves voted for Remain; the have-nots for Leave. More clearly than ever, what matters now is not how much pie there is to go round. What matters is who gets what, and who takes the pain.

The evidence of the distributive effects of immigration is limited. According to an LSE study, the economic impact of immigration on jobs is neutral overall: counties that received the largest rises in immigration experienced neither larger nor smaller rises in native-born unemployment than the national baseline, and the proportion of new jobs that go to immigrants is consistent with the ratio of natives to immigrants in the population. But this is in the good times. The government’s Migration Advisory Committee notes that the market struggles to absorb immigrant labour during contraction, and that this is geographically variable. An increase in supply of labour and decrease in demand means that wages fall, especially at the low-skilled end and in economically depressed areas, and natives are displaced from jobs they would otherwise have got.

This isn’t news to those holding the wrong end of the economy’s stick. The policy implications are, however, not straightforward. Control over how many people enter the country is a lever with which the government can help counteract the negative distributive effects of the economic cycle. In the upswing, let more people in. Restrict numbers in the downswing, allowing in only those with the skills that will benefit the economy.

But the usefulness of this lever is not yet a decisive reason to require control over immigration. There are a host of other ways that government can protect the poorest from the bad effects of immigration, even in austerity. Taking just the economic considerations, control over immigration is a policy lever worth fighting for — say in trade negotiations — only if the benefits it brings for the poorest are more significant than those that could be gained in other ways. I know of no one who has a clear answer to this. In terms of economic objections to immigration, the jury is still out.

The jury is not out on the political objections. Here are three reasons why someone committed to British democracy should be concerned about mass immigration.

First, the ability to control entry into a country is one of the fundamental prerogatives of a sovereign nation. It is as significant as the powers of setting and administering law, issuing money, raising taxes, and waging war. To exercise sovereign control over territory, it is not enough that a state is able to apply the law to all those who are there. It must be able to control who enters, other than through birth. Although it may choose not to exercise such control, it retains this right. This is what it is to be sovereign. Leaving the EU means restoring this right to the UK, not just in the attenuated de jure form that, as a last-gasp reassertion of sovereignty, we have now called on. The power must be exercised de facto. That befits a nation that governs itself.

Many, including Boris Johnson, have drawn the distinction between taking back the UK’s ability to control who gets in, and reducing how many get in. Control need not equal restriction. We’re open to immigration, the idea goes, but we want to welcome the world’s best. This is perfectly laudable of course, even if the desire not to be committed to taking in Europe’s unemployed is usually passed over. A reason for making the distinction is that it signals nicely, again, that concerns over immigration are not mere racism.

This is a distinction without a difference. It leaves unexplained why the power to exclude is one of the fundamental sovereign prerogatives. Without such an explanation, the assertion of the prerogative looks like a mere grab for power. (“Without justice, what are kingdoms but bands of robbers?”) Consider two other similarly fundamental powers: raising taxes and imposing law. Both can be described in nasty terms. A group of people have arrogated to themselves the power to extract a proportion of my income? And to set rules for me to live by which, if I decline to do so, will land me in prison, for a period of time they determine? Nonetheless, raising tax and imposing law are essential to a well-governed society, because only thus can we provide public goods and welfare for the poor, and security for all. The power has to have a purpose to be justified. So an explanation is needed as to why control over immigration is needed. This leads, then, to the second reason why curtailing mass immigration matters, and I think the most fundamental.

Mass immigration undermines the ability of a collection of individual persons to be a people — to have bonds of loyalty to each other; to have the ability to take pride in each other’s achievements and feel shame at their shortcomings; at the limit, to love each other, not in the romantic sense, but in the brotherly sense that marks those who live together well. It is just a fact about human nature, about the kinds of beings we are, that we love and care for those we share life with, and this in a way that is different to those who are strangers to us.

Nor need this be voluntary. I chose to try for children, sure. I didn’t try for these particular children. Yet my relationship with them is qualitatively different to that which I have with those who are not mine, and I would be a poor father if that were up for question. Bernard Williams remarked, of a man who had to come up with a reason for rescuing his wife from drowning rather than the life of a stranger, that he had “one thought too many”. Would we want it any other way? Can we imagine a flourishing human life that does not, in large part, consist in relationships with people who I legitimately privilege over others? Whose well-being I care for not because I want to maximise the amount of well-being in the world, but because I care for them?

These bonds of partiality are most pronounced in intimate relationships. They exist also in political communities. Over time, in the context of concern between generations and cooperation between families, villages, and towns, so communities develop cultures, which bind us together. They can do this only if there is a certain level of stability — stability regarding whom I live with and, usually, stability in where we live. Without some such culture, people living together are merely a collection of alienated individuals, living an impoverished life. To flourish you must belong.

Valuing cultural diversity commits you to the conditions that make it possible. Stability of place and population are essential. If everything is in Heraclitean flux, everything turns grey. If you want your weekend in Naples to be culturally enriching, and not just warmer, the people there need to be mainly Neapolitan. It is a closed and insular culture that is unable to welcome strangers. It is a condition of there being a culture that most people are not strangers.

There is a deep incoherence in that outlook which claims to value diversity, while divesting itself of any bond of allegiance. It is bonds of allegiance, held in all their messy particularity, which help create the diversity. The incoherence is usually latent, but becomes explicit in the force of circumstance. Writing in the wake of the referendum, George Monbiot protested against the delocalising effects of global capitalism: “A worldview which insists that both people and place are fungible is inherently hostile to the need for belonging. For years we have been told that we do not belong, that we should shift out without complaint while others are shifted in to take our place. When the peculiarities of community and place are swept away by the tides of capital, all that’s left is a globalised shopping culture, in which we engage with glazed passivity.”

Who has spent the last years saying that he does not belong in the country he lives in — and nor should you? Monbiot, for one. “I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I don’t, and the same goes for everywhere else I’ve visited. To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others.”

He is wrong about the implications of patriotism: loving your own country need denigrate no other, just as loving my wife does not denigrate any other woman. But his cosmopolitan credentials are duly burnished bright.

The importance of the power to exclude for the preservation of culture is most clearly seen in the experience of indigenous people. Take the native Americans. Their tragedy was not just the injustice of what happened to them. It was also the loss of who they were. Late in his life, remembering the massacre at Wounded Knee, Black Elk remarked:

I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. The nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer; and the sacred tree is dead.

The native Americans’ tragedy is an extreme case. Lest I be misunderstood, my point is nothing to do with any equivalence in suffering, of which there is none. It is to identify a locus of value, in the form of life sustained by a community, and the existence of which is made plain by its loss. Black Elk knew that. Why should it be parochial or racist to recognise the same here? That value can be destroyed by massacres at dawn. It can also be eroded by population shifts over two or three generations.

Note too the policy implications drawn then. The creation of reservations was the central plank of the belated attempts to help the culture of the native American tribes to survive. In these, control over some land is reserved to a tribe. This includes, necessarily, control over who lives there. The land is not yours, collectively, if others can enter and settle at will. If there was no distinctive value in the preservation of the culture, it would have equally well satisfied the demands of justice for each individual native American to be compensated in money for their share of the territory the tribe was dispossessed of, and allowed to disperse among the new states, free to separate or gather together as they wished. But the effect of that would have been the dissolution of each tribe as an entity. Only the reservation system made it possible for the tribes as such to survive.

Identifying as valuable the culture that creates a people out of a group of persons is not some simple glorification of history, in which the past is lauded because it was there first. Cultures change. The direction a culture takes is owned, though, by the community that sustains that form of life. This is true for native Americans; for aboriginal peoples in Australia; for tribes in Papua New Guinea and Peru. It is true, too, for the British. Nor does it imply that all cultures are of the same value. Plainly, some can thwart and oppress, and others can liberate and enable. But such assessments point themselves to the claim I am advancing, that cultures are targets of moral evaluation.

There is a serious objection to my claim that protecting culture justifies control over immigration. Control is a national prerogative; but often as not, the kinds of identity-sustaining cultures that I have been talking about are subnational. More-over, nations can be constructed on a specifically non-ethnic basis, by bringing together different cultures. All that is needed to unite is a civic tradition, such as loyalty to certain institutions, or founding documents or stories, for instance. The objector concludes: look at America, an immigrant nation; or, indeed, look at London, a melting pot of the world. Mass immigration here only adds to the cultural richness.

It is true enough that people talk of Cuban Americans, Italian Americans, Muslim Americans, etc. The same dual identification could as easily be given of Londoners, or the British. It is also true that this indicates that political identities can be constructed out of more porous, civic material rather than the thicker, harder-to-adopt stuff which comes from having a shared history of living in a place. But we should be sceptical of taking this possibility to be somehow morally obligatory.

For one, the “melting pot” conception of a political community is inherently dependent on the existence of other sources of primary, more ethnically based identities. The melting pot’s fusion requires different ingredients, which arise only in prior, stable communities. Being Cuban American is a distinctive possibility, in part because being Cuban is distinctive.

For another, a community owns for itself the direction its culture develops in. Change is not something to be imposed by others. It seems likely to me that the desire to live in a heterogeneous or a homogeneous community is, at bottom, a matter of preference. It is explained by our psychology and not capable of justification. Whether a nation chooses to value the preservation of its distinctive culture, or whether it welcomes plurality, is up to its people. What matters is that they decide.

The possibility of there being a people sustains a rare and vulnerable political phenomenon: democracy. This is the third reason why immigration matters.

Democracy depends on trust to function stably. The most dramatic illustration of this is the problem of transferral of power. Why should I step down merely because more people voted for you? How do I know that you will do so too, when the tables are turned? I might have a moral obligation to relinquish power if the electoral process is fair. But without the assurance that you will reciprocate, self-interest says I should ignore the result; otherwise, I’m a sucker. This is why Mo Ibrahim’s prize of $5 million and $200,000 per year for life is so astute. It is awarded to African leaders who step down when the vote goes against them. His prize changes the incentive structure: it is now credibly in my self-interest to step down. When Mo’s $5 million isn’t there, however, what fills the gap is trust, based on bonds of loyalty. A shared identity as a people, in my broad sense, with mutual affective commitments, gives its members assurance that others are committed to the democratic project of exercising power fairly.

There are other, subtler ways in which a liberal democracy depends on trust too. Most people comply with the laws, including those with which we disagree, predominantly from the view that you are morally obliged to conform. We make do as a society with far less coercive force threatened by the state than would be the case without this legitimating belief. But the belief in the legitimacy of the laws is stable only given a good-faith assumption that, even where I disagree with the policy, it is imposed both after a fair process and in the best interests of society. Without the good-faith assumption, the polity dissolves into competing factions. Crucially, this includes the intention of the proposers that their policy be in the best interests of all. Without this assumption of good faith, elections are merely competitive devices for a trial of strength without violence, and it is hard to see what obligation I have to comply with the outcome. “But those who take counsel for a part of the citizens, and neglect a part, bring into the state an element of the greatest mischief, and stir up sedition and discord” (Cicero). A society which is not dependent on force for the implementation of policy, and which is able to decide how to govern itself under conditions of disagreement — a liberal, democratic one — depends on trust in the good intentions of my political protagonists.

Plenty of peoples, in my richer sense, do not govern themselves democratically. But democracy doesn’t take hold without there being a people, a demos. If you care about the stable future of British democracy, you should worry about mass immigration.

Theresa May’s statement “Brexit means Brexit” is both emphatic and vague. That is its strength, now that the hard yards of negotiating our exit are to come. But it is clear that ending freedom of movement for EU citizens into the UK is a red line for any deal. Without that, the result of the referendum will not have been respected. What I have been trying to do is to articulate the reasons why this should be a matter of legitimate concern in the first place.

No doubt many racist votes were cast in the referendum. This is because the following principle is true: if you are racist, then you want to control immigration. Given a further premise — that Bob is racist — the inference rule modus ponens entitles you to conclude that Bob wants to control immigration. But it does not follow that, if you want to control or reduce immigration, then you are racist. Consider this parallel. If you are in the Ku Klux Klan, you wear a funny pointed hat; bishops wear funny pointed hats; so bishops are in the KKK. The technical term for this logical fallacy is affirming the consequent. A colleague teaches it by a more memorable label — modus morons.