Fortress Britain, a timely new book edited by Ben Ryan, considers the UK’s confused approach towards immigration policy over many decades and how this muddled thinking continues as Brexit looms. Drawing on the themes that emerged in the book, Ben highlights the lack of ethical clarity and consistency on immigration policy and the need for new arrivals to be respected as human beings and not merely economic agents.
Since at least the 1940s the issue of immigration has been at the front and centre of British political debate. Over the decades, where those migrants are coming from, under what circumstances, with what inducements and for what reason have changed time and again. One thing that has remained consistently true is that the British approach has been confused and inconsistent. At the heart of the failure to deliver any consensus is the absence of a shared values structure that would define a British approach to dealing with the question of immigration.
This failing is not unique to the UK; in fact it has come to be a broader hole in the heart of the West. From Hungary, Poland and Greece to the USA and Canada, and from Finland and Norway to Australia and New Zealand, the West is struggling to reconcile itself to (at least potentially) irreconcilable principles on immigration. Policies strain simultaneously to be maximally economically beneficial and simultaneously maximally able to protect social cohesion and avoid the undermining of national identity.
The two principles are not necessarily compatible, and in some cases can undermine one another. For example, using the economic principle as a guide, immigration might be encouraged as a necessary part of supplementing the labour force. Yet these so-called “economic migrants” are precisely those who are most susceptible to the charge of “taking British jobs” and, therefore, can cause resentment towards immigration as a whole and damage social cohesion. In assessing the success or failure of an immigration policy it is clear that these are two goods which are entirely separate criteria.
This is a trap which has ensnared a succession of UK governments. Brexit, in this sense, provides an extraordinary opportunity for a government to propose a new settlement on the issue. What is needed is a new, consistent ethical approach. It was with that in mind that the Christian think tank Theos commissioned ‘Fortress Britain: Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post-Brexit Britain’. Out this week, this edited volume asked seven academics of differing political and theological positions to answer the question of what an ethical approach to immigration might look like.
Summarizing such a collection is inevitably difficult, but four primary themes emerged across the chapters:
The answer to this critical question will have major consequences for all approaches to immigration policy. Is Britishness something intrinsic, or can it be acquired? How the answer to that is formulated will significantly shape how we come to define citizenship, and the status of immigrants in this country.
It has become clear that there is a significant fear among a large segment of the British population that immigration is changing the character of the UK. This particular debate over Britishness recalls the famous Theseus’ ship paradox. How many new aspects and communities can be added into the mix before the thing that is “Britishness” ceases to be the same thing as it was 20, 50 or 100 years ago? For some that tipping point has arrived, and only by reducing immigration and more firmly asserting a British identity can solidarity be maintained.
Settling the question of what makes (or could make) someone British is a philosophical and ethical question that will have major policy implications. Critically, it is necessary that this policy work cannot take place in a moral and ethical vacuum. Developing policy before being clear on the value structure is a recipe for future confusion and conflict.
Any ethical approach to immigration must, naturally, take seriously the question of what is owed to the vulnerable and outsiders. For example, though neither asylum seekers nor child migrants make up anything like the majority of migration into the UK, they are in a position of such powerlessness and vulnerability that a response on the part of the state is required. Christianity is, of course, particularly concerned with the plight of the vulnerable and outsiders, and there is a wealth of biblical and theological material from which to draw on that space.
However, it is not only the most vulnerable who demand some sort of ethical response. The treatment of any immigrant is an ethical issue, particularly if the policies enacted lead to negative consequences for those immigrants. For example, policies aimed at economic migrants which ultimately leave migrants with fewer rights can lead to exploitation and oppression. The rights afforded to migrants, and the bodies underpinning those rights against the (potentially diverging) interests of the state, must be part of any discussion on the future of immigration.
No one is advocating a scenario in which immigrants are left completely devoid of rights, of course. But the question of how many rights are afforded to people in different circumstances is one which can lead to very diverging positions. The corollary of rights is responsibilities – and there are equally significant debates to be had about what is to be expected of immigrants. These expectations might look very different depending on the sort of migration in question. A temporary worker, present to fulfil a particular task, without any expectation of citizenship or of long-term integration, might be expected to have a different amount of responsibility, from say, a refugee, or someone seeking to obtain indefinite leave to remain in the UK. How much is expected in each case, and how to balance those responsibilities, against rights, is a fault line in much of the current debate.
The question of the balance between the rights and responsibilities of immigrants leads to a further question about how communities can live together in harmony. Critics of immigration, who would like to see levels drop significantly, or even cease entirely, still need to recognise that a great number of immigrants and their descendants are already settled in the UK. Even if all migration into the UK were to stop tomorrow the issue of how to create socially cohesive communities would still be a policy concern – and an issue demanding an ethical response.
A final challenge is the risk of de-humanizing immigrants. All too often, immigration debates are limited simply to a question of what would be best economically. In this way human existence is reduced to a matter of utility, it is stripped of personhood and any moral value.
This phenomenon is not limited to economics. Fear, and its political embodiment in security policy, can also serve to de-humanize immigrants. Islamic extremism has increased a popular fear of immigrants (particularly refugees) to the extent that the attitude that it is safer to take no migrants at all has taken hold of a part of the public debate. That not all immigrants are Muslim, and only a tiny minority of Muslims have ever committed any such acts, is lost in an atmosphere of fear. The blanket assumptions deaden us to the humanity of individual people.
This need not lead to a simple call for open borders, or refusing to take seriously the concerns of the British people over the effects of immigration on their communities. It is, however, to call for an approach that puts humanity at its heart.
Ben Ryan is a researcher at Theos and the editor of ‘Fortress Britain: Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post-Brexit Britain’ (JKP 2018), which launches tomorrow (19/04) and is available to buy here.
Note: This piece gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Religion and Global Society blog, nor of the London School of Economics.