When UCL researchers released their latest findings on the fiscal impact of immigration a fortnight ago, they were portrayed in the media as somehow missing the point. It seems that data on the economic benefits of immigration can’t make a dent in current political debates about the subject. So why are such arguments so ineffectual in shifting opinion?
One answer lies in the inadequacy of abstract data. Apparently people don’t trust numbers – that’s “just facts”, as someone put it at panel discussion I recently attended on immigration. Anecdotes and second-hand stories about welfare abuse appear to be more compelling and credible than UCL or NIESR reports. The (admittedly infrequent) conversations I have with people who express strongly anti-immigrant views certainly suggest that information is largely drawn from second hand stories and the experiences of others – family members or friends, doubtless reinforced by right-wing media and political rhetoric.
A second answer is that the marginalisation of “expert” analysis is caused by a more general decline of trust in leaders, elites, or experts. This has been a frequent theme in debates on immigration across Europe since the age of post-WWII immigration. The public refuses to trust a supposedly out of touch elite, which is defending immigration because of vested interests in securing a pool of low cost labour, or because of woolly human rights or liberal commitments. This tendency is of course part of a more general decline in deference for leaders, elites, politicians, and experts of all description. These statuses are no longer a badge of authority.
There’s not much that defenders or more progressive immigration policies can do to counter these two tendencies. But it’s the third explanation that needs a bit of unpacking. This is the claim that economic arguments simply miss the point. For example, UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s argument that even if the economics data is correct, it still doesn’t imply immigration is a good thing. Concerns about immigration are about social and cultural issues: impacts on on communities, social services, accommodation, or cultural diversity. Tim Bale and others have made similar points recently, to the effect that “it’s not the economy, stupid”.
We need to tread very carefully here. Firstly, most of the concerns being articulated about immigration aren’t stories about cultural difference. They’re about competition for scarce social and economic resources, people jumping the queue, not playing by the rules. In essence, what immigration scholars have called “welfare chauvinism”. They’re just as likely to be directed at white, European, Christian immigrants as at black, Muslim and Asian immigrants – the groups traditionally characterised in British discourse as racially or ethnically different. In that sense, much of the anxiety about immigration isn’t “racist” in the sense traditionally understood. It’s about social and economic insecurity, the decline in standards of living, a loss of control, anxieties which can easily be channeled into suspicion of those who don’t play by the rules, or who are less deserving. That’s why anti-immigrant sentiment seems so closely to mirror concerns about “welfare scroungers”, and why both forms of prejudice seem to surface in times of economic downturn.
Second, the claim that anti-immigrant sentiment is “cultural” also risks conflating symptoms and causes. It implies eliding concerns about cultural diversity with the notion that immigration has itself caused an erosion of social capital. Yes there has been a dramatic decline in social cohesion (if we must use that term), especially since the 1950s – or if we want to be picky, dating back to rapid urbanisation brought on by the industrial revolution. People no longer share strong collective identities based on class, religion or locale; extended family and neighbourhood networks don’t play the same core social function they used to; people have become more individualistic, acquisitive, and life goals revolve around the individual or the nuclear family. But that’s decidedly not a product of immigration.
So while it may be true to say that concerns don’t revolve around economic factors in the strict sense, it’s misleading to infer from this that anti-immigrant sentiment is essentially cultural. And it’s just plain wrong to suggest that it is generated by the corrosive impact of diversity on social capital. Instead, as many others have suggested before, worries about immigration frequently serve as a lightning rod for a range of other social and economic anxieties. And to that extent, churning out data about the fiscal benefits of immigration won’t cut much ice with UKIP voters. Especially when it emanates from a discredited political and intellectual elite.