An Apology

 Saying sorry when you’re English is habitual.  But in the last year, I’ve found myself saying sorry more often than I used to. Saying sorry to my long-time Bulgarian friend (she with the M.Phil from Cambridge).  Saying sorry to my Romanian cleaner (who doesn’t see her husband all that often, because when she’s finished work at the end of the day, he’s about to start the nightshift).
Why? Because it’s increasingly hard for me to understand why they stay here, contributing to our economy – in some case doing jobs few Britons are qualified to do, in other cases doing jobs for low wages that few Britons want to do – when the public and the politicians are so convinced they’re to blame for our discordant communities.  Eastern European migrants are not welcome here: that’s obvious to me as well as them.  Yet it’s a hostility that makes no sense to me in either intellectual or emotional terms.
Some might say I should “check my privilege” – that I don’t understand the white working poor and their anxieties.  Fear not: it hasn’t escaped my notice that I’m wealthy and I’m well-educated, and that means I have far less to fear about the future than many others, whose livelihoods and cultural identities are precariously balanced on the edge of a retreating welfare state. There is, absolutely, a hell of a lot to be angry about:  we live in an increasingly unequal and increasingly socially immobile country. Equality of opportunity? We should be so lucky.
But while fear of immigration may well reflect the season of our discontent, immigration isn’t the cause of these ills. By far the worst thing about David Cameron’s announcement today that new EU migrants will face vastly restricted access to benefits is not so much the content of the policy itself, but the fact it claims to offer a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place. 
Others like Jonathan Portes have already pointed out that this is political pandering to tabloid-induced hysteria, not evidence-based policy.  The number of EU migrants claiming benefits is small: the numbers doing so maliciously or dishonestly tiny. But as a funder told me in a telephone call last week, immigration policy is increasingly no longer about evidence or research. It’s just politics.
So convincing a fairytale has been spun around immigration, with immigrants as the villains, that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, as all the political parties rush to insist that they’ll do the best job of protecting “our” poor by keeping the bastards out. At the Guardian reported this afternoon, it now seems ‘as if there is no one left in the Commons willing to defend immigration from Eastern Europe’. 
When Teresa May waves the Daily Mail in the House of Parliament to “prove” her point, it’s not just political theatre. It’s dangerous.  For this is a stampede of rhetoric, trampling those much-trumpted “British” values like tolerance and fair-play into ground refashioned to fit a new mean-spirited nationalism. There’s irony, then, in the fact that it’s these Westminster politicos, who are so desperate to preserve the Union, that are pursuing the small-minded and nasty politics of xenophobic hysteria, while in Scotland it’s the Nationalists who are trying to build a more open, progressive, migration policy.
The White Paper published yesterday by the Scottish government outlined what an independent Scottish immigration policy would look like. There are few surprises: but there’s a welcome relief in the recognition that UK immigration policy is driven by the politics of marginal seats in the South-East, and that immigration has a compelling – even a crucial – role to play in a Scottish future, not least because of the essential demographic contribution migrants have and will continue to make. 
As commentators have pointed out, it’s important not to assume that such plans carry with them the support of the nation: Scots as a whole are only marginally less opposed to immigration than their English neighbours.  But it is proof that it is possible to open up a space where you can talk about immigration in progressive political terms: that the contours of the immigration “debate” don’t have to be restricted to working out how to be toughest on immigration.
Of course public opinion, north and south of the border, matters. Yet some way beyond democracy lies demagogy.  Just because 85% of Daily Mail readers think that migrants are putting huge pressure on the NHS and schools doesn’t mean it’s true.  It’s a convenient distraction from the choices that have been made to strip back our welfare state, to let the rich loose from social responsibility.
I’ve long known the Tories are the “nasty party”. But I don’t want to believe England is – yet – a “nasty country”.  However, I think it is in danger of succumbing to a self-righteous `anti-migration frenzy, and that is self-defeating, for it will leave the UK much poorer, in both monetary and moral terms.

So to all the European migrants reading this: sorry, once again. It’s not much consolation, I know – but for my own sake, I want to say once more: this is not being done in my name.