Pick up any newspaper or switch on the radio and you will hear that people want to talk about immigration. But you can usually expect to quickly hear something else too: the problem of people not being allowed to talk about immigration, said British Future director Sunder Katwala at Bristol University.
“It is curious that one of the most vocal and often repeated arguments in what can seem to be the noisiest and most sharply contested of all of our public debates is the complaint that people do not feel that they are allowed to talk about it at all.
So tonight I do want to talk about immigration – and about the problems we experience in talking and not talking about it. I want to look at some of the history of how we got here over recent decades, and about where we might go next if we are to address this sense of disconnection.
I am heading a new organisation – British Future. Our ambition is to deepen the public conversation around issues of identity and integration, migration and opportunity in Britain today. Those are issues which go much wider than immigration, though each often has an important impact upon the immigration debate too. So, tonight, looking more specifically at the issue of immigration, I would like to think out loud, and to try to start a conversation here in Bristol about some of the challenges we face.
It is an honour to be invited to give this inaugural lecture in memory of Krishnan Anand. This new series of lectures in his honour will, over time, address a varied range of themes reflecting the spirit of his commitments to racial equality, to the Asian community’s participation in Britain and to people working together for integration across communities to bring about positive change.
It seems appropriate to begin with immigration. Krishnan Anand is remembered tonight in Bristol, because he was an immigrant who came to this country – and because he contributed much to this city that his friends and admirers wish to celebrate and learn from.
Krishnan Anand arrived in Bristol in 1961, as the open door to the Commonwealth was about to give way to more restrictive policies, as politicians and civil servants poring over the statistics in Whitehall began to talk about the immigration ‘problem’. Statistics matter, but what they aggregate are human lives. Every number in the demographic data represents life-changing decisions – to cross continents, to start families, to choose to become British, and to contribute.
My father was also an immigrant who came from India to Britain, a little later, arriving at Heathrow on a May bank holiday in 1968. He came to this country to pursue his career as a doctor, having trained in Bangalore and having got six months experience as a doctor on the Indian Railways under his belt. He wanted to make some important life choices too – preferring not, for example, to pursue the marriage that his parents were offering to arrange for him. Instead, he came to London, aged 24, and to see what adventure that bought. Within two years he had met my mother, born in County Cork in Ireland, more than 4000 miles away from his Gujerati birthplace, but who had also come here to work for the National Health Service in Britain. So there are also millions of us who are not immigrants, who were born here in Britain, but who would not be here without immigration.
There are more than a million such human stories of the British in India and of Indians in Britain. We could argue long into the night about which stories we might tell first and why – the grand narratives of conquest and freedom, or the other stories they contain: stories of cultural or sporting rivalry and respect, of unusual alliances and unlikely friendships, or of how opponents over one great question of national destiny could also make enormous shared sacrifices over another. But there will never be any single truth about these encounters, except perhaps this: they have helped to make us the societies that we now are. The ineradicable traces of our mutual involvement goes much deeper than our inability to imagine modern India as a land without cricket, or to ask whether England would still be England had it never known neither tea nor curry. The history of immigration and exchange is above all a story about people.
So I could trace the encounters between Britain and India through the stories of personal heroes. While running the Fabian Society, I came to think of Nehru as perhaps the greatest of all Fabians, a man who could be jailed by the British in the cause of Indian independence without becoming any less Anglophile. Or I could choose my favourite writer George Orwell, who was born Eric Blair in Bihar, India, in 1903, because his father was working in the Opium Department of the Indian Civil Service. Orwell was among the first to see how the coming dissolution of Empire would affect the British and English sense of identity just as much as that in the newly emergent states.
But I want to talk instead about another political figure who was profoundly shaped by the engagement between India and Britain. If we are to talk about how we talk about immigration, then we will have to talk about Enoch Powell.
Was Powell perhaps the most significant British politician who was never Prime Minister? Certainly no other speech was argued so much down the decades as that famously infamous tract forever now known by the shorthand of “Rivers of Blood”. The controversy about that speech became so famous that is obscures everything else about Powell. So I suspect that few people now recall that Enoch Powell’s primary motive for entering politics was his own intoxification with India.
“I soaked up India like a sponge soaks up water”, Powell was to tell his biographer Simon Heffer, even claiming that, by the end of his two and a half year posting there from 1943, he felt as much Indian as he did British. Powell’s great ambition was to enter the House of Commons as a pathway to becoming Viceroy of India. He set out his vision for British India in over 30,000 words in two memorandum to Rab Butler arguing, as late as 1946 that, to even contemplate Indian independence would be a “betrayal for which no legal or moral justification can be cited”.
But India could not remain in the Empire without Indian consent. Everybody else thought that what Powell called betrayal had long become inevitable. But it was still a profound shock for Enoch. The story is told in Simon Heffer’s magisterial life of Powell, a great biography written by an admirer, yet which never shies from any evidence or quotation that Powell’s many critics would find useful. Here is how Heffer describes Powell’s reaction to Attlee’s appointment of Mountbatten to bring India quickly to independence.
“Powell’s hopes were shattered. The whole basis for his entry into politics had been removed. It was, [Powell said], “a shock so severe that I remember spending the whole of one night walking the streets of London trying to come to terms with it”. So traumatised was he that he could recall the exact details of his shock 42 years later, in a conversation with Peter Hennessy. During that night, [said Powell], “occasionally I sat down in a doorway my head in my hands”. … One of Powell’s biographers, Humphrey Berkeley, without much exaggeration described this moment of catastrophe as “a spiritual amputation from which Powell has never recovered.”
While Britain held India, Powell was the most fervent of imperialists. As soon as India was lost, he became an anti-imperialist and yet more fervent Little Englander. Powell was to acknowledge this himself in a Sunday Telegraph interview in 1992, again quoted by Heffer: “If somebody had asked me in 1939, ‘what are you coming home to fight for?’, I would have said the Empire. By the end of the forties I had worked myself through to the perception that what really mattered was the way in which the English, here on this piece of island territory, managed their affairs”.
Having lost his Empire, one of Powell’s primary causes was to become the rejection of one of the central social consequences of its dissolution: the idea that a post-imperial Britain should be a multi-ethnic one.
Powell lost that central argument decisively, not least because the transformation of Britain that he wanted to stop was already irreversible by 1968. But the way we talk about immigration has struggled to escape the shadow of his speeches.
For the left, but also for many liberals beyond it, Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech demonstrated the potential toxicity of the issue of immigration, a thought captured by Conservative Party leader Ted Heath’s explanation for his immediate sacking of Powell that the speech was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions”. Powell always stated that he did not believe in racial categories, and so could not be a racist. But he did become an unwilling icon of those who were, as the National Front adopting the slogan “send them back” as part of its menacing street presence in the 1970s. For those who oppose immigration, the reaction to the Powell speech demonstrated a decision to close down the immigration debate entirely, not merely to avoid racism within it, out of a fear of popular and populist sentiment on the issue.
Powell was perhaps more of a seer than a politician. He was both the prophet of a course which this nation did not take, and probably could never have taken, as well as the prophet of the apocalyptic doom which would engulf us if we did not heed the warnings. It is the reaction to Powell which provided a founding moment for the potent myth that we can’t talk about immigration.
The argument is not only made by opponents of immigration. So Trevor Phillips, who chairs the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave a significant speech about immigration on the 40th anniversary of Rivers of Blood
“For forty years we have, by mutual consent, sustained a political silence on the one issue where British people most needed articulate political leadership. But the shockwave of fear hasn’t just affected what politicians said. It also critically determined what they did. And that too has mostly been the opposite of what the Powellites hoped. To start with by closing down debate about immigration, they allowed successive governments to avoid having much of a policy at all.”
This is what almost everybody seems to believe, but it is not what happened across the post-war era. It isn’t true that politicians were frightened of speaking against or act to restrict immigration after 1968. Political elites made concerted attempts to acknowledge public anxieties, passing volumes of restrictive immigration laws.
Commonwealth Immigration restrictions had begun before Rivers of Blood, with the 1962 Act, but they accelerated afterwards. Labour had opposed the 1962 Act. But by 1968 Jim Callaghan was explaining that emergency legislation was needed to remove the right to entry from Kenyan Asians holding British passports.
Ted Heath bravely faced down pressure to admit the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin, but his policy also sought to tighten immigration. The 1971 Immigration Act ending most primary immigration from the “new” Commonwealth, was a direct response to Powell’s pressure. The Tory liberal William Whitelaw told the Conservative conference of 1976 that the party would “work towards a policy which is clearly designed to work towards the end of immigration as we have seen it in these post-war years”. Margaret Thatcher’s empathy with those who felt “rather swamped” by immigration in the run-up to the 1979 election is well-known: in the same interview in which she pledged that we “must hold out the clear prospect of an end to immigration”. The 1981 Nationality Act followed.
There is no evidence of decades of silence. Rather, both major parties were acting on pressure to restrict immigration for most of the post-war period.
There was a significant and historic rise in immigration after 1997 and the economic and social consequences of this are rightly much scrutinised and debated. Given that there were already three million non-white Britons by the time of the 1991 census, rising to four million by 2001, it is difficult to sustain the argument that post-1997 immigration which caused a fundamental change in the nature of British society.
The rise in immigration after 1997 was vocally contested, leading the New Labour government to respond with no fewer than six major pieces of legislation, each seeking to make the government look active on making immigration and asylum more restrictive in various ways. The Conservative opposition made immigration more central to its 2005 general election campaign than in any previous post-war contest – but this proved a strangely unpopular populism as the party lost heavily. People did want the chance to talk about immigration – yet the assertion that “its not racist to talk about immigration” instead seemed to choose to begin another argument about the links between race and immigration, to leave us all still stuck arguing over whether we could talk about it or not. Party strategists suggested that the tone of this immigration campaign even seemed to put off voters who agreed with it.
Where the argument was about whether to restrict immigration or not, Powell was more influential on post-war immigration than the orthodoxy admits. He sparked an enormous amount of support and opposition. It may not have been comfortable, but the British were probably talking more openly about both immigration and race than was the case in many other European democracies in this period.
But Powell lost three other arguments which mattered more to his attempt to prevent the changing nature of post-war Britain.
He could not persuade his colleagues that mass voluntary repatriation was a workable idea by 1968.
He was on the losing side of the 1975 referendum, where the public chose to ratify British membership of the European Economic Community, which already involved the free movement of labour between member states under the founding Treaty of Rome.
Above all, Powell decisively lost the argument about what it meant to be British, on the right as well as on the left.
Why was Powellism rejected? Krishnan Anand, as a Labour Party member would have legitimately pointed to the advocacy and activism of the left on issues of racism and anti-discrimination. That created a strong sense of identification between minority communities and Labour. New research shows that retained its potency even at the last General Election.
What mattered as much in the long-run was the rejection of Powellism by the right.
The secret behind the British Conservative Party’s claim to be the most electorally successful democratic political party in Europe of the last century has been that it has been conservative, but rarely reactionary. It may have opposed proposals for change, and sought to slow the pace of change, but it has usually been quick to adapt to change too.
Krishnan Anand had already been in Britain for seven years when Powell spoke in Birmingham, though my father only arrived a couple of weeks after the speech. There were one and a quarter of a million people already here from the new Commonwealth, making their lives in Britain. They were more than a million reasons why Powell had had to tell his supporters that it was already too late to reverse the fact of a multi-ethnic Britain, even if his policy of voluntary mass repatriation was adopted, at least for several generations, though Powell, speaking in Eastbourne late the same year, put the implausible claim that this was ultimately still possible to do this in unfortunately chilling language:
“We can perhaps not reduce the eventual total of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population, much, if at all, below its present size: with that, and with all that implies, we and our children and our children’s children will have to cope until the slow mercy of the years absorbs even that unparalleled invasion of our body politic.”
That surely captures why Powell’s repatriation argument in 1968 was at least two decades too late to appeal to most conservatives. But Powell did usefully place a clear time limit on his argument. He said that he spoke with such urgency because repatriation could only be attempted while most immigrants had been here for under a decade – and he acknowledged that the argument would belong to history by the mid-1980s, when the majority of the immigrant-descended population would be British-born.
Most of the argument in 1968 was about numbers: whether Powell had got his numbers right or wrong. But Powell’s numbers stand up very well – they are as close as to what the 1991 or 2001 census would show as anybody might hope to be at two or three decades distance. What he got wrong was his central claim about the consequences of those numbers – that the presence of three or four million non-white Britons effectively meant national suicide, since it would be impossible, with just a handful of exceptions, not just for immigrants
themselves, but for their children too to integrate into this society.
Powell said: “Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still. Unless he be one of the small minority, he will by the very nature of things have lost one country without gaining another, lost one nationality without acquiring a new one. Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States.”
That high Tory anti-Americanism has largely disappeared from British politics. So too has the existentialist pessimism which could not believe that those with parents from India or the Caribbean could ever really feel British.
Polling on British identity, published by the think-tank Demos, has again proved that this was a false prophecy, the latest survey to find that non-white Britons generally, and Muslims in particular, express similar, and often higher, levels of patriotism and pride than most white Britons.
Pride in the nature of multi-ethnic Britain should not belong to any one political tradition. The liberal wing of the conservative party is sometimes accused of being some modern “progressive” bolt-on, but it can claim a longer history. But it was the liberal Conservative tradition which had spoken clearly in 1948, when David Maxwell Fyfe told the House of Commons that “we are proud that we impose no colour bar restrictions … we must maintain our great metropolitan traditions of hospitality to everyone from every part of the empire”. Those traditions of the liberal right can be traced from William Wilberforce through Disraeli and Iain MacLeod to the staunch anti-racism which John Major took from his own political apprenticeship on the streets of Brixton, before David Cameron’s concerted and successful effort to ensure his party diversifies its reach and representation.
Nor was it only the liberal Tories which rejected Powellism. The Tory right could see that there was no future in it either. Margaret Thatcher thought that it was important to connect with anxiety about immigration. But Thatcherism rejected the Powellite vision of who could be British. The Tory party election poster of 1983 – “Labour says he’s black, Tories say he’s British” – was deliberately contentious. It was too assimilationist for many: The Voice newspaper responded “We say we’re black and British”. But it was also a rejection of Powellism over the question of who could be British.
Disconnection and conspiracy today
If recent decades settled the question of race and British identity, the theory of a conspiracy preventing discussion of immigration retains its potency, and remains central to a large amount of commentary, often from impeccably mainstream and liberal democratic voices. Earlier this month, Max Hastings, the former Telegraph editor and a grandee of the intellectual right wrote this in the Daily Mail:
“Sir Andrew Green’s petition to Parliament campaigning against a population in Britain of 70 million has already gained the 100,000 signatures it needs to trigger a Commons debate. If this happens mark my words: most of the chamber will be empty. Many MPs of all parties will find it convenient to be seen neither to support nor to oppose Sir Andrew’s cause though it is the cause of almost all of us. On no single issue have our politicians more conspicuously sold the pass. The UK Border Agency’s immediate responsibility for the latest scandal is obvious. But this is only one manifestation of a historic failure in which Britain’s entire political class has been complicit.”
And, from this perspective, it is all very simple. The problem of a disconnect of immigration is simply that the politicians refuse to do what the public want.
So the answer is simple too: it is time to finally give people what they want, to decisively cut net migration to nearly zero, and to stabilise the population. To refuse would be another chapter in this long story of the betrayal of the people by elites.
But the truth turns out to be more complicated than that, as was demonstrated by an important recent poll from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory which dug behind the headlines.
It found that most people do want reduced immigration. Asked if they want more or less immigration, 67% want immigration reduced, while 19% are content with current levels, and 6% would like immigration increased.
That seems pretty clear – but it is not enough to prove Max Hastings’ case.
Because those who want to reduce immigration also disagree on some important questions – namely how much to reduce immigration, and how to cut it.
Over a quarter of those who want reductions in immigration say government should only target illegal immigration, which means that over 40% of the public do not want reductions in legal routes at all.
And a quarter of people want immigration reduced a little but not a lot – along with those happy with current levels, they outnumber those who favour large reductions, narrowly, by 49% to 45%.
When asked to choose which types of migration they would keep or cut, majorities of the public would like to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants, asylum seekers, unskilled migrants and distant relatives. But most people say that they are happy to keep current levels of students, skilled migrants, business people, scientists, care workers and immediate family members. Add all of that up, and it amounts to a very large share of the immigration we have got.
These results throw up a paradox of trying to follow public opinion on immigration given that people will the end but not the means. The Oxford University poll suggests that the government could not achieve the popular goal of reducing migration to the levels it wants unless it were to make cuts in immigration which most people oppose.
This suggests that the root cause of the disconnection is less that the people are united against the machinations of their elites, but that people disagree significantly about immigration, and what to do about it.
They would like government to reduce immigration more – but oppose what it is now doing to do that.
A quarter of the population are liberals, who are happy with immigration as it is now, including the small number who want more. Another quarter of the population are moderate reducers – who do think immigration should come down, at least a bit, but who also worry about the consequences of reducing it in the wrong way. It is this group’s selectivity about what types of migration to cut which explains why majorities oppose cuts to several large immigration flows.
But a fifth to a third of the population are rejectionists – more interested in stopping immigration than reducing it. 20% would stop immigration permanently, and one in three are tempted by a “temporary” halt until the economy improves. Any government is going to struggle to keep these voters happy unless it wants to both leave the EU and close the borders.
So any government, might fear being stuck in no man’s land. The current government’s broad instincts chime with public opinion, in wanting to reduce migration, but to do so selectively, and to keep the immigration that reflects Britain’s interests or values. But it is proving very difficult to strike that balance in practice.
Universities and business fear that migration cuts are already damaging the economy. Those who want moderate reductions worry that new controversies over the borders mean that the government has not got a grip on the system, yet share the concerns of liberals about further restrictions in skilled migration risking the economic recovery. Meanwhile those who want large reductions are most vocal in their unhappiness that the government is missing its target, though it is not clear how many would be satisfied if they hit it.
The current e-petition campaign presents the strange spectacle of a government well off target in its ambition to reduce immigration under pressure to respond by setting a much tougher target than the one it is missing. This is presented as the answer to public disconnection – but replacing an almost impossible target with an even more impossible one doesn’t sound likely to increase trust in the end, any more than talking about “British jobs for British workers” did for the last Prime Minister.
The better answer would be for the politicians to take the public desire to talk about immigration seriously. That would mean challenging people to do more than express their grievances about why the politicians are letting them down, and to actively engage with how to choose between the trade-offs in making policy. That challenge to government, political parties and the media would be to work out how to offer a real public voice over the choices we should make, by making more sustained and deliberative engagement possible.
How could we change how we talk about immigration?
If we survey the history, it is not true that we have not talked about immigration. But few would claim that we have done so as openly or as confidently as we should have. The immigration debate has been anxious – dominated by fears of not talking about it enough or talking about it too much, without finding enough effective ways to give real voice to people.
Changing this would present challenges to those on all sides of debates about immigration.
Those who want to defend immigration should acknowledge the liberal discomfort about talking about immigration – and resolve to get decisively on the side of talking more about immigration, and not less.
Those who are social or economic liberals on immigration should beware of the lure of trying to fact-check their way to changing minds. It is true that there is a lot of myth and misinformation out there about issues of immigration and, especially, asylum. But statistics are unlikely to change minds without understanding the economic and cultural anxieties that people’s concerns are often reasonably rooted in. And this approach can imply that the facts must bring everybody to the same view – rather than acknowledging that democratic disagreement is possible over immigration, just as over the health service or the economy. Doing that could help liberals to reach out to potential allies, such as those who do favour moderate reductions but who are worried about cuts which could go too far.
One simple way for liberals to demonstrate that democratic disagreement over immigration can be reasonable and healthy would be to end the practice of accusing mainstream politicians, like David Cameron, of “dog whistling” when they make speeches on immigration, where claims that they are making coded appeals to extremists lacks credibility. This kind of over-policing of discourse is not necessary to disagree on substance, whether that is over immigration, or integration, or multiculturalism. It simply reinforces the conspiracy myth that the whole subject is off limits, giving us a shouting match as rival advocates focus on challenging the integrity of opponents, which rarely gets to the question of what we should do.
There are challenges to those who want to significantly reduce immigration too. Immigration sceptics are confident that they represent public opinion – but standing that claim up depends on showing that they have workable proposals which people support. The e-petition campaign of Migration Watch backed by several newspapers has mobilised support impressively so it deserves the Parliamentary debate that it has won. It offers a chance to debate immigration from first principles, to show that the issue is not off limits and that we can talk about it. Taking that Parliamentary debate seriously surely now requires the migration sceptics to reveal the action plan to back up the “no to 70 million” slogan. It can’t be enough to call for “all necessary steps” to reduce net migration to almost nothing without setting out the steps that could do it – and showing not only that the slogan is popular, but that people would also support the plan to achieve it.
What do we talk about when we talk about immigration?
It is also important to recognise what we are talking about when we talk about immigration. Of course, the immigration debate is about immigration policy. Questions of who we let in to contribute to our society – and who we want to keep out – go to the heart of questions of democratic community.
So the immigration debate will always be, at least in part, about how the borders are managed, whether the system works, about numbers, the pace of change, and what we think about the impacts on our economy and society, on jobs and housing, and culture and integration.
But when we talk about immigration, we find ourselves talking about many other things too, beyond what happens at the borders.
We are talking about who we are, about our hopes and fears, about economic and cultural confidence, about whether we think we have changed for the better or for the worse, and about who gets a fair deal in our society and who doesn’t.
We should be talking about how we can talk frankly and sometimes disagree with democratic civility about the issues that can divide us most deeply.
But the most important lesson of the post-war history was that these never were, and could never have been, questions only for immigrants or the children of immigrants would navigate arguments of identity, integration and difference.
They raise profound questions for our whole society.
Sometimes, they sparked bitter and divisive debates. Sometimes, we all know that we made progress too.
There was certainly something important to talk about.
The fear of not being allowed to talk about immigration has resonated because it speaks to a bigger concern about whether we can have a voice that counts on the issues that most touch on our hopes and fears about our future, and about whether and how we can be proud of the society that we have now become.
Where people remain concerned that we can’t talk about immigration, that is why it matters that we do show that we can.”
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future. He was speaking at Bristol University to give the inaugural Krishnan Anand lecture. Krishan Anand (1934 – 2003) was a pioneer in community relations and racial equality activity in Bristol, and was remembered at the start of the meeting by Dr Rohit Barot. The lecture was chaired by Professor Tariq Modood, director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.