Stuck on repeat: Cameron on immigration

 If you repeat something often enough, people start to believe it’s true.  Just so with David Cameron’s latest comments yesterday that  ‘this open and welcoming economy’ must cut legal aid and other benefits for foreign nationals to avoid being seen as a ‘soft touch’. To prevent abuse of services, those who ‘haven’t contributed their taxes… should pay when they use the NHS’.  Cue applause and hysteria from Tory MPs, the Daily Mail, Migration Watch etc., and howls of outrage from UKIP, rushing to outflank the Conservatives on the right and campaigning to ‘stop open-door immigration’. The “debate” on migration shifts further right: the doublespeak turns half-facts into accepted truths.
I hesitated before starting to write this blog: after all, I’ve written this blog before. So too have others. We get stuck on repeat. But the words need to be scrutinised: the claims called into question. An ‘open and welcoming economy’? Revealing perhaps to use the word ‘economy’ and not ‘society’: when hostility towards immigration is commonplace expression, amplified by tabloid journalism, we’re not an open and welcoming society. But our economy open?  That ignores the cries of software firms that they can’t find the skilled staff they need, the protests from universities about ever-more stringent visa regimes leading engineers and economists to look elsewhere for education.  As for open-door migration… even if we accept that EU freedom of movement (a reciprocal policy that opens the door to British emigration and a thousand Spanish fish-and-chip shops, let’s remember) is migration, there are still provisions in EU law to ensure that EU migrants cannot become “scroungers”: they must have sufficient resources and sickness insurance.
Easy to pull apart the rhetoric.  But there’s something more at stake than migration. A week ago Nando Sigona wrote about how the turning of migrants into bogeymen is now affecting citizens: falling in love and building a family with a non-EU foreigner an income-dependent privilege. He’s right. However, I also think we can see in the language used to berate migrants’ abuses of public services (that they are very often paying for)  a darker story still, one that affects not just the private lives of citizens but the public content of citizenship itself.
Read Cameron’s words again: those who ‘haven’t contributed their taxes… should pay when they use the NHS’.  But most migrants pay taxes: many British citizens don’t.  Income-dependent access to “public” services: who does that exclude? Not migrants per se: the poor.  And while the welfare state’s foundations lie in the fictions of equal citizenship binding rich and poor compatriots together, and Cameron needs British voters to believe he’s on their flag-waving side, the austerity decade is already rewriting our social contract in a manner that suggests migrants are not the only group seen as undeserving poor.  These are the foundations for a wider attack on the social rights of citizenship. And – with the threats Cameron’s recent speech makes to legal aid – the foundations of the British state in the rule of law. What have we become if we are a community in which a stranger is no longer entitled to a fair trial?
The irony is that the hollowing out of citizenship is taking place at the same time as the citizen’s privileges are being shouted about at higher volume and more frantically than for many decades.  But that’s the beauty of doublethink.  And that’s why we need to keep dissecting the rhetoric, pointing out its inconsistencies and it’s dangerous implications. Because you never know – if you repeat the meticulously researched evidence about the impacts of migration often enough, some people might just begin to believe that’s true instead.

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