Paul Barker: Britain's nervous breakdown

Britain has become neurotic about immigration. But there is no need to panic
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In the closing moments of Jules Dassin's classic film noir The Naked City, the narrator intones the moral, in a famous pastiche of tabloid journalism: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them." But sometimes in Britain it seems as if there is only one story: sheer, naked panic. And this is one of those times. The prospect of more migrants arriving from eastern Europe, by either straightforward or devious means, has spiralled off into almost uncontrolled neurosis.

Governmentally, Beverley Hughes has paid the price. Politically, she deserved to, having been caught out in a direct denial of the truth. But her action, or inaction, has helped to stoke the panic, not least among Tony Blair's other ministers. If immigration is at the top of voters' agendas at the next general election, they fear that even their huge Commons majority won't protect them. This, too, would be fair, if rough, justice. Policy wonks think that being in government is about "delivery". But it is also about social psychology. It's about reassurance, conveying a feeling of being competent, of being in control. It's about confronting and assuaging public panic. Ever since Alfred Harmsworth invented the Fleet Street popular press in the 1890s, politicians have had to learn to swim in a world of media, like a fish in water. It's a century too late to start blaming the pressures.

Meanwhile, however, the miasma of panic remains. This corrupts all debate. Britain seems to be having a collective nervous breakdown. The current upsurge focuses on migration, asylum seekers and refugees (three xs in the same equation). With the latest arrests under the Terrorism Act, fears about Islamic extremists feed into the frenzy. Have families who we thought were firmly settled begun to harbour young people ready to kill swathes of their fellow-citizens, in support of foreign ideologues? (This is about perception, not hard fact. No one has yet been charged with anything after these arrests.)

But there is a floating cloud of panic in many other areas of social policy. Are all our schools on the edge of collapse? Are all council estates awash with yobs who need jumping on from a great legal height? Is the NHS a basket case? The Government has brought some of this upon itself, through its obsession with check-lists. In a variant on Gresham's Law of money, bad news drives out good. A school, an estate or a hospital which fails will always generate more comment than one which triumphs.

For the moment, though, the panic revolves around all those foreigners who are banging at the door. When the LSE sociologist Stanley Cohen revised his definitive study Folk Devils and Moral Panics for a 2002 reprint, a photograph of the notorious (and now closed) Sangatte refugee camp appeared on the cover. As he notes, such panics recurrently attach themselves to a set list of causes: violent young men, drug dealers, child abusers, welfare cheats and - like today - foreigners "flooding our country, swamping our services".

Now none of this, he acknowledges, means that there is no cause for concern. Children can be abused; the welfare services can get cheated; drug dealers can destroy a neighbourhood. And it's wrong to accuse of "racism" those who speak of the problems caused by too many outsiders arriving in one place at one time. Almost everywhere in Britain there's fierce competition for social housing, for health and welfare services, for school places. Those who have been long settled here, of whatever skin hue, resent being pushed aside by those who have not yet put their taxes in the pot.

Commentators, who are often protected from much of this by their income and by where they live, should not trample on such anxieties. The British National Party is not about to take over the country. (No fascist party, from Mosley on, has ever got anywhere.) Britain is arguably less xenophobic than many other nations, as witness the 16 per cent of voters who endorsed Le Pen's Front National in last weekend's French regional elections. But real anxieties need to be dealt with, not ignored. It's only when more broadly based parties fail that extremists flourish. In her 1979 election campaign, Margaret Thatcher saw off the very nasty National Front by a touch of Grantham rhetoric, followed by a determined attempt to bring down migrant numbers.

It didn't, and couldn't, last. Twenty years later, a Labour government faces the same dilemma. You can be sure that, in another 20 years, so will some other government, of whichever party. The shifting of people across national borders has grown, is growing and will continue to grow. Roughly one in every 35 people in the world is now a cross-border migrant. If they all lived in one place, they'd be the fifth most populous state.

Of the world's 6.3 billion population in the year 2002, about 175 million were reckoned to be living in a different country from the one they were born in. About 40 per cent of them lived in Western industrialised nations. The United States - which has nearly always had an open labour market - has the highest numbers (22 million in 2002). Australia has the highest proportion (26 per cent of the workforce).

The receiving nation benefits, but so also does the nation of origin. Remittances back home are the best-targeted form of overseas aid. This cash never sinks into the pockets of corrupt dictators or into the coffers of fighter-plane salesmen. In 2001 it was estimated that more than £70bn flowed from migrant families to stay-at-homes, meaning from rich nations to poor ones.

The panic about eastern Europeans is strange because - to be absolutely open about the realities - they will rapidly disappear into a nation which is still more than 90 cent white. Many Poles, Ukrainians and others settled here after the Second World War. They had often found themselves stateless through boundary changes or through fleeing Soviet-style communism. Many made their homes in northern towns and cities - Halifax, Bradford, Leeds, for example - where there are still Polish or Ukrainian clubs. Local Roman Catholic churches gained some permanent adherents. Otherwise, the only trace of this wholly absorbed influx is the occasional strange name, like that of Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP, whose Estonian parents got as far away from Stalin as they could.

But a symbol is a symbol. Some of the 1990s Kosovar refugees did the cause of other eastern Europeans no good. They acquired a grim, often criminal reputation, like that of the Maltese in the 1950s and 1960s. Another truth is that numbers matter. What helps to create panic is this thought: "There are millions of them out there, just waiting to get in." For this reason it was south Asian immigration, rather than migration from the West Indies, that first led British governments into letting down the portcullis. Tony Blair and his ministers have a delicate and unenviable job. It is their duty to replace panic by social calm.

Paul Barker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Community Studies