Tuesday night. French class, and we are practising the conditional: `if I were Prime Minister, I would…’ And of course, my conversation partner comes up with the obvious: `…get rid of all the immigrants’.
Depressingly predictable. And give the circumstances, completely illogical. Let’s rewind for a minute here. We’re talking about this in a French class – which, presumably, means that she has some intention of making at least some contact with some French people. Plus, this being Oxford University, the rest of the class includes a Pole, a Russian, a Lithuanian, a German, an American and an Indian. Get rid of all the immigrants indeed.
I’m fairly certain that this would-be director of immigrant purges wasn’t suggesting her classmates should be deported. Yet her unthinking regurgitation of the lines we’re fed by politicians and the Murdoch media is one more example of middle-class doublethink on migration. I have lost count of the number of times that — at one of those clichéd North London late-twenty something dinner parties – friends who pay their subscriptions to Amnesty and Liberty have commented that nevertheless “Britain is full up”. Though of course, for these particular migration watchmen, “full up” doesn’t include their Argentinian girlfriend or their Russian grandmother. It doesn’t preclude choosing between Vietnamese and Ethiopian for dinner and eating over-priced Tex-mex burritos in Angel for lunch.
The truth is, in Britain middle class angst about migration is very often really middle class angst about class. Yes, the working class may have good reason to fear migration and globalisation – though I would argue that’s because society and the state have failed to build up a culture of social mobility or offer adequate education or support.
But the middle classes? We already live in a cosmopolitan, mobile world – where offices are full of multilingual workers and babies hold multiple citizenships. Every single member of my French class — whatever their nationality — has more in common culturally with each other than with working class Britons living on inner-city estates.
When middle-class people talk about Britain being “full up”, and being “strangers in their own cities”, I think they’re actually talking about the dislocation within our own British society and using migration as a cipher. Far easier to talk about excluding the foreign poor than adequately educate and equip the British poor for success in the modern world.
Ultimately, you cannot divorce the politics of migration from the politics of social mobility. The middle classes who don’t believe in social mobility – but fear the reality of the angry, the unemployed and the undereducated – will happily continue to practice doublethink. Jump on the populist bandwagon! Migration must be stopped! But their own foreign friends aren’t “migrants”, are they? Their opposition to migration is a question of class.
And the middle classes that do aspire to a mobile society? Well, maybe they need to start thinking about why they parrot lines about “controlling immigration”. National identities and state borders are at least in part convenient fictions that smooth over outrageous inequalities of opportunity within our states. If we had the courage to face up to the failure of social mobility in modern Britain, we might recognize that middle-class attitudes to migration are the contradictory product of class – far more than national – prejudice.