So I tire of the lazy argument, advanced by Tory and Labour politicians alike, that “we don’t talk about immigration”. Announcing his candidacy for the Labour leadership last May, Andy Burnham claimed: “There’s still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration.” Rival candidate Ed Balls said he warned Gordon Brown not to “brush it under the carpet”. A year on, “Blue Labour” thinkers are pushing a similar line of thought.
David Cameron has been quick to pounce. “[T]here were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist,” he said this week, adding: “[I]t is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it.”
This is nonsense. There is no conspiracy of silence on immigration. We talk of little else. Only two months ago, in Munich, the prime minister demanded that immigrants “speak the language of their new home”. On Thursday, he repeated the same message: “We’re making sure that anyone studying a degree-level course has a proper grasp of the English language.”
In fact, if it were true that we never talk about immigration, why am I constantly bombarded by BBC producers asking me to discuss the subject on their various outlets? Why, indeed, am I writing this piece for the Guardian?
Don’t get me wrong. I want to talk about immigration; I like talking about it. As the son of (Indian) immigrants and the husband of an (American) immigrant, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.
So here we go. Can we talk about immigration and its economic impact? A government study in 2007 estimated that migrants contributed about £6bn to output growth the previous year. That’s equivalent to a 1.5% cut in the basic rate of income tax. Can we talk about this?
Can we talk about how immigrants, contrary to myth and legend, boost wages in the UK? A report for the Low Pay Commission found that between 1997 and 2005, immigration to the UK made a positive contribution to the average wage-increase experienced by non-immigrant workers. In the words of the report’s author, Professor Christian Dustmann of UCL’s Department of Economics: “Economic theory shows us that immigration can provide a net boost to wages.” Is this worth a discussion?
Can we talk about how the British high street has been transformed by foreign-born entrepreneurs? Tesco, Marks & Spencer, easyJet and countless other leading companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. As the economist Philippe Legrain points out in his book on the financial crisis, Aftershock, immigrants are twice as likely to start a new business as people born in Britain.
Can we talk about how, for the first time, two of our three major political parties are led by sons of immigrants? Nick Clegg’s Dutch mother, Hermance van den Wall Bake, met his half-Russian father, Nicholas, on a visit to England in 1956. Ed Miliband’s parents fled the Holocaust and arrived on these shores as refugees. His father Ralph caught the last boat to Britain before Belgium was overrun by the Nazis; his mother Marion arrived from Poland in 1947, aged 12 and unable to speak English. Meanwhile, David Cameron’s great-great-grandfather, Emile Levita, a German-Jewish financier, came to this country as a migrant in the 1850s and obtained British citizenship in 1871. I have yet to hear the prime minister mention Levita in a speech.
Cameron is also a distant cousin of the Queen. Can we talk about migrants and the monarchy? The German origins of our royal family are often glossed over: prior to 1917, the House of Windsor was the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. And, lest we forget, the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, father and grandfather to the next two Kings of England, was born in Corfu as “Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark”.
Can we talk about the impact of immigrants on another much-loved British institution, the NHS? More than one in three of the UK’s registered doctors gained their medical qualification abroad. Official figures obtained by Channel 4 News a year ago revealed that one of the NHS’s largest private contractors employed not just immigrants, but illegal immigrants. Without foreign-born workers, the NHS would grind to a halt.
Can we talk about immigration and the funding of higher education? One in 10 students in British universities come from outside the EU and these students pay much higher tuition fees than British students – an average of £20,000 a year compared to £3,290. International fees are now a bigger source of income for most universities than research grants. Without foreign-born students, our universities would go bust.
Can we talk about the fact that nearly a quarter of Britain’s Nobel prize winners were born abroad? Take the Nobel physics laureate, Konstantin Novoselov, who holds both Russian and British citizenship and lives and teaches in Manchester, or the 2010 Nobel prize winner for economics, the British-Cypriot Christopher Pissarides.
Can we talk about immigration and the national game? Migrants have helped transform the English Premier League into the world’s most popular football league. In 1992, there were only 12 footballers in the Premier League born outside the Commonwealth; two decades on, more than half of the Premier League’s clubs could field an entire team of foreign-born players. The current coach of the national team is an economic migrant, the Italian Fabio Capello, as is his predecessor, Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson. (Last month, the linguistically-challenged Capello insisted he only needed to know 100 words of English to do his job – will the prime minister denounce his high-profile refusal to integrate?)
Can we talk about the culinary gifts from migrants? The quintessentially British fish and chips, says historian Panikos Panayi, came from French and Jewish immigrants; this is now a land of pizzas, curries and noodles.
Can we talk about all of this? Discussions of immigration tend to revolve around forced marriages and the need for English language lessons. But there is an alternative, positive and uplifting story to tell about the myriad ways in which this country has benefited from its migrant population. In the words of the late Robin Cook: “We should celebrate the enormous contribution of the many communities in Britain to strengthening our economy, to supporting our public services, and to enriching our culture and cuisine.” To focus only on the negative side of the ledger is as dangerous as it is disingenuous, irresponsible as it is ill-informed.