For richer, for poorer

If the UK’s coalition government has a single theme it likes to spin its policies around, it’s solidarity. And like the forgotten language of the ‘big society’ and the faux-austerity practices of Cabinet millionaires, the UK Government’s relentless pursuit of a reduction in net migration to that magic (and meaningless) ‘tens of thousands’ figure is supposed to make us believe that We’re All In This Together.    This week, we’ve seen the Home Office unveil its latest set of plans, this time focusing on cutting family migration.
But if the cracks between the classes are increasingly wide on domestic policy – pasty tax or granny levy anyone? – on the migration question the public-at-large appear to be persuaded. Keep the foreigners away from our fast-disappearing benefits! Protect Britain from welfare scroungers!
This nasty anti-migrant discourse relies on the same fictions of national unity that saw a million people stand in the rain last weekend to celebrate hereditary monarchy. Proof – if proof were needed – that the political persuasions of crowds are rarely rational. This isn’t to suggest that there’s no value in a shared culture, a common identity. But it’s equally wrong and just as dangerous – at least if you care about social inequality – to ignore that those building blocks are riven with class cracks. My cultural British identity is glued together with marmite and radio 4 and gin and tonic and Waitrose and Michael Palin. Ah, yes, that’s right – I’m not just British, I’m middle class. Pretending We Are All In This Together – when we quite clearly are not – is a deliberate deceit.
But how does this lead back to migration? After all, migration is about the difference between foreigners and citizens, not rich and poor Britons. But what’s actually most worrying about this new set of migration regulations is not that they exclude yet more migrants (although they do), but that they also undermine citizenship. These new proposals make the right to a family life in the UK a commodity, rather than a citizens’ right. Because now, if you – a UK citizen – earn less than £18600 a year, your non-EU partner will be refused a visa to settle in the UK. If you have a child, you’ll need £22,400. For every extra child, the threshold will rise by £2,400. The richest can bring their wives to Mayfair and accelerate permanent settlement by depositing their cash in a UK bank. The poor – or in this case 40% of UK citizens – can live apart.
All this brings the draconian implications of immigration law much closer to home for a young middle-class Brit. I remember being shocked a few years ago when a Danish friend told me how anti-immigration laws meant he and his new Turkish wife were forced to live in Sweden, driving across the bridge to commute for work. Now, I can think of at least three young, professional couples – on British, one foreign – who would have been forced to live apart for several years under these new rules. Or emigrate.
So this is how migration and citizenship collide. Citizenship is supposed to be about equal rights, equal status. It’s supposed to replace flag-waving fictions with a meaningful shared community. And sure, in practice that’s an aspiration rather than a reality: many Old Etonians are still born to rule. But the alternative – an alternative that seems to be rapidly taking shape – is far bleaker: the commodification of citizenship and its rights, so it’s how much you can earn which determines your political and not just your economic freedoms.
So keeping migrants out – sold as an act of national solidarity – is now actually undermining our own citizens’ rights. Cloaking migrants’ exclusion in Red, White and Blue perpetuates a double injustice, helping to hide the hollowing out of that much-vaunted British state, so that the rich pay and the poor do without, while also directing anger at the huddled masses outside not the pampered elite. And if the workers of the world won’t unite, how very much easier to keep them in chains.