“Unintelligent people always look for a scapegoat”, said the British statesman Ernest Bevan. Today this quote might seem to apply to Theresa May and the Conservatives, who’ve warned that “mass migration” makes it impossible to “build a cohesive society” . But in this instance, Bevan’s wise word needs some tweaking; it’s manipulative people who scapegoat. The Home Secretary knows exactly what she’s doing. As the daughter of an immigrant, I’ve grown up knowing the realities of xenophobia, and I can see May’s speech for what it really is: an attempt to scapegoat migrants and obscure the real threat to social cohesion - the Government and it’s anti-poor policies.
In her speech to the Tory conference, May has claimed that economic gains from high immigration are “close to zero”. This simply isn’t true. Though I’d love for this debate to be more humane and less about economics, between 2001 and 2011, migrants made a net contribution to public finances of £25 billion in taxes. More than you can say for some of the tax evaders who lose the UK billions.
Even when you put economics to one side, there's another crucial bit of context May has chosen to ignore. Mass movement of people around the world is happening all the time. In March net migration in the UK reached 330,000. This may seem high, but you should try comparing it to the number of British people who have emigrated. By the BBC's last estimate, 1 in 10 Britons live abroad. This includes 1,300,000 in Australia; 761,000 in Spain; 678,000 in the USA; 603,000 in Canada; 291,000 in Ireland, and even 8,500 in Mexico and 7,100 in Kuwait.
But that doesn’t fit with May anti-immigrant narrative. Her claim that “mass migration” is upsetting Britain’s balance by putting pressure on public services is dog whistle politics at its worst. None of it holds up. Glance at the NHS, one of the areas May says is under threat, and you’ll find migrants are far more likely to contribute to than take out of it. What's more, the 4.5 per cent of the population who were born abroad are responsible for less than 2 per cent of NHS spending (making them less of a strain per person than British-born residents), but make up 11 per cent of all health workers. The NHS is built on "mass migration".
So why would the Home Secretary claim otherwise? Diversion is the name of May’s game. It’s the Government and their policies that are the real threat to social cohesion. The reason there aren’t enough jobs or homes isn’t because of people from abroad; it’s because of under-investment. Migrants don’t create low pay; a deregulated labour market exploited by corporations breeds zero hours contracts and poverty. Meanwhile, insecurity is made worse by the Government’s policy of cutting tax credits for the poorest in society while drastically scaling back the welfare system.
None of this is to say that concerns over mass migration aren’t real. People feel like their communities are being taken away from them and that their life opportunities are stunted by workers from abroad. But this is often informed by fear, insecurity and prejudice, not reality; support for Ukip tends to be high in areas of low immigration, while evidence suggests diversity is actually good for social cohesion. The Tories don’t have to capitalise on this fear by taking it to the dizzying heights of governmental office and hardening it into policy. But because they’ve played such a big part in creating insecurity, they’re choosing to do so. It gets them off the hook.
Scapegoating people from abroad is no new trick, but sadly it remains an effective one. Turn poor Britons against poor immigrants and no-one will ever have time to look to the top of the ladder to see that the Conservatives’ policies are the real problem here. If we want to stop Britain becoming increasingly xenophobic, we have to take this anti-immigration Government head on, and call them out when ministers like Theresa May decide to espouse such rubbish.
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