Next week marks a decade since Poland entered the EU, and the first Polish immigrants made their way through passport control with no definite plans of return. In the intervening years, the Poles have taken up the mantle of Britain’s most visible immigrants: the symbol of this country’s rising anxieties about national identity and culture. Our series on their impact, which concludes today, shows that as the UK has evolved since 2004, so too have the men and women who chose to make their life here. The stereotype of the Polish builder, for example, is belied by a growing number of entrepreneurs, engineers and bankers. And yet, from the increasingly hostile public debate, you would not know it.
Part of the responsibility for this lies with Labour, who estimated 13,000 Eastern Europeans would move to Britain after border controls were lifted. Over a million arrived. Many native-born Britons – suddenly hearing Polish spoken on the street – are yet to forgive this miscalculation. The rise of Ukip coincides with growing resentment, which in turn is wrapped up in suspicion of metropolitan MPs, who may hire a Polish builder (there are still many left), or nanny, at a knock-down price.
Yet the rabble-rousing of Ukip feeds further, and equally grand, miscalculations. On average, Britons believe that one person in three is a migrant. The true figure is closer to one in seven. They also overestimate the amount of benefits claimed by EU migrants by a factor of six. This week’s finger-pointing poster campaign launched by Ukip, which told voters that 26 million unemployed Europeans were “after their job”, was poisonous. For one thing, the number of immigrants from the EU each year is almost exactly balanced by the number of Britons who cross back over the Channel.
There is, however, some evidence that foreign-born workers may displace natives from low-skilled jobs, though that effect, a 2014 report clarified, disappears in periods of growth. Often it is simply the case that incomers take jobs that locals do not want or cannot do. On the whole, economists agree, immigration boosts our financial health, with young, hard-working newcomers paying more tax than the average Briton, and in turn receiving fewer state handouts. That the Conservatives have roundly failed to control the influx (it was up last year by 30 per cent) brought relief to analysts who fret over how to fund the healthcare costs of an ageing population.
Numbers will never tell the full story, however. And misguided as voters may be concerning data, gut feeling counts for more. The elderly, especially those outside of cosmopolitan London, are more likely to speak of a country changing beyond their recognition. Whatever spirit of togetherness Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony generated has, the director admitted last year, failed to survive a prolonged squeeze on living standards.
To such cultural concerns, valid as they are, a moral riposte works best. Two of the UK’s finer qualities are its tolerance and openness. We should reward the endeavour and aspiration of those brave enough to start a new life here – and take succour from the fact that they choose to come at all. The vast majority of immigrants play fair, work hard and add to the case that Britain still deserves the title “Great”.