Most British people will go through life not knowing what it takes for a foreigner to become a citizen of the UK. Why would we? By accident of birth most of us had the immense good fortune to grow up in one of the greatest, most wealthy, powerful and free countries on Earth, never giving our 0.89% against-the-odds luck a second thought. We have no experience of uprooting our lives and moving to these isles from somewhere else, or of the financial and bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome in order to settle here and acquire a British passport.
Our lack of empathy – together with widespread ignorance of the various types of immigration and the differing rules and laws governing them – makes it very hard to have a rigorous, fact-based discussion of past and present British immigration policy. Throw in the careerist short-term focus of our politicians and a sane debate becomes next to impossible, as we have seen over and over again, most recently in the 2014 European elections.
Witnessing the British immigration system close-up when you are already a UK citizen, safe and secure in your legal status, offers a dispassionate but revealing glimpse of what it is actually like to go through the arduous and often stressful process of settling permanently in Britain. If only our political leaders and opinion-setters in the media would disengage from the battle of the 24 hour news cycle for one day and take the time to see for themselves, they might have a small epiphany and (for those with genuinely open minds) become willing to think and talk about immigration in a different way, giving us the debate we need rather than the one we have.
You don’t have to travel far for this reality check because the heart of Britain’s current immigration problem is best expressed not at passport control at Heathrow airport, the migrant camps in Calais or the Polish grocery store on the high street, but in the accredited test centres up and down the country that administer the “Life In The UK” test to people seeking permanent residency or citizenship of the UK.
To be clear, the problem is not the “Life In The UK” test itself – though one could certainly quibble with the curious selection of factoids and trivialities that the Home Office proclaims to represent a sound working knowledge of modern Britain, or speculate endlessly about the percentage of immigrants who exercise their right to take the test in Welsh or Scottish Gaelic (at unknown cost to the taxpayer).
The problem is that the “Life In The UK” test takers are in the midst of a long, demanding and expensive process to settle permanently in Britain, one which an equal number of immigrants – by virtue of being EU citizens – are free to bypass altogether. This disparity of treatment, a function of Britain’s membership of the European Union, inadvertently reveals almost everything that is wrong with the current British immigration debate.
Observing the waiting room in of one of these anonymous-looking test centres as an existing, documented British citizen is a revelatory and slightly humbling experience, because here you are surrounded by people who fiercely covet something that you already have. As you enter, you are quite likely to pass by people leaving in tears because they have failed the test and have to take it (and pay the fee) again.
The prevailing mood is one of fear – the candidates sit in tense silence, often with heads bowed over test prep books, going over a few final practice questions before showtime. Did the Roman occupation of Britain last for 150 years or 400 years? Who fought in two wars against Napoleon – Horatio Nelson or Winston Churchill? And is driving your car as much as possible one of the two things you can do to look after the environment?
Softball questions aside, the bar to settle here when you come from outside the EU is set very high. To seek permanent residency or citizenship is to make a significant investment of time, energy and money towards an application which may not even be successful (and for which there is no refund in the event of rejection).
It involves divulging every conceivable detail about your life and proving to immigration officials beyond reasonable doubt that you are capable of sustaining yourself economically without becoming a burden on the state. And to top it off, your biometric information is taken and added to a database for identity verification whenever you enter or leave the country, and for any other purpose that the government may concoct in future.
The process by which someone from the European Union settles in the United Kingdom is rather simpler. The single market ensures that citizens of any EU member state can move to the UK to work and live indefinitely as they please, bypassing all of the steps and hurdles facing a Sri Lankan, American, Turkish or Chinese immigrant. The minimum logistical requirements consist of packing a bag and turning up.
This is great for those of us who want (and are able) to live an itinerant life or pursue a multinational European career – the benefits of the single market cannot then be overstated. But for every British person who sees only opportunity in the EU’s free movement of people, there is another working for the minimum wage who will never be offered a secondment to the Brussels office by their company, and who must console themselves with the second-order benefits of free movement – such as “delighting in the capital’s kaleidoscopic culture” or being served their “early morning coffee” by someone from Spain.
The single market in its current and unamended form may yet be in Britain’s best interest, and the free movement of people may be a net positive thing – but the British people have not had a say in the matter since the 1975 European Community referendum, and it’s quite clear that they want to have a debate about it now.
Sometimes that desire is expressed forcefully and unpleasantly – any talk from politicians and their supporters about “hordes of Romanians” or slurs about eastern European workers is rude, disrespectful and unbecoming – but it is categorically not racist. Those who disagree need to check their dictionary and contemporary history books to reacquaint themselves with the true meaning of the word.
(It should – but does not – go without saying that just because the immigration sceptics have their fair share of racists within the ranks, this does not imply or prove that all anti-immigrant positions are necessarily racist. All racists are against immigration by definition, but not all people – or even most people – with concerns about immigration are racist).
Our British democracy is neither perfect or universal. That’s how it comes to pass that people have voted in every general and European election since the 1975 referendum but still ended up in 2014 with an immigration policy widely considered unsatisfactory. We have been guided to this bad place by generations of politicians who were too cowardly to start a difficult conversation on the subject during their own tenures, happy to leave the issue on the back-burner until it is now finally starting to boil over in the age of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Farage.
A real leader would seize the opportunity to give the British people the debate that they want, and which has been wrongly suppressed for too long by a political consensus that cried “racism!” at the first mention of immigration. A real leader would step up and proclaim the many benefits that immigration confers on Britain, while acknowledging its wildly varying impact on different sections of society, and discussing ways to mitigate the negative aspects. A real leader – and for all he has done to start the debate, Nigel Farage has failed here – would do all of this without resorting to scapegoating or undue exploitation of people’s fears.
In short, none of Britain’s party chiefs can at present be described as a responsible leader on one of the most important political issues of the day for many people. As it stands, our country loses no matter who wins in 2015.
If Labour (who have been almost entirely captured by their metropolitan professional class at the expense of their former party base) win the general election, nothing will change and the increasingly poisonous status quo will continue. A majority within this rootless Labour Party still see any questioning of immigration as morally equivalent to owning a signed first edition of Mein Kampf, and Ed Miliband has apparently decided that refusing to acknowledge UKIP’s victories and the public sentiment behind them will somehow be interpreted as a sign of his strength and resoluteness.
If the Conservatives win, they will likely fail in their attempts to extract meaningful concessions for Britain on inter-union movement of people from the EU or changing the eligibility for immigrant access to public services and the welfare state (getting unanimous support from the other 27 member states being a dim prospect). The only way the Tories will then be able to save face is to increase the already onerous barriers and impediments to those seeking to come to the UK from outside the European Union, many of whose talents and skills we urgently need – and the last thing we should be doing is further discouraging them from coming here.
If the Liberal Democrats avoid complete electoral annihilation in 2015, their best hope is to join another coalition government, in which case their natural instincts could only lead them to solidify Ed Miliband’s “full steam ahead” policy on Europe in the event of a Labour-led government or act as a minor brake on any destructive moves to crack down further on non-EU immigration in the event of another Conservative-led coalition.
And if UKIP were to perform well and capture a significant number of seats at Westminster without toning down their overly strident rhetoric or adding any kind of nuance or acknowledgement of geopolitical reality to their own policies, the other parties would likely be so unwilling to deal with them that their MPs would simply be frozen out of the process altogether.
For all this ambivalence, Britain is a diverse and mostly tolerant land, and immigrants have played a huge part in our history and heritage. In today’s modern economy we need to be able to compete for the brightest and best of all the world’s talent, making it attractive for people to study at British universities, work for British firms and settle here with their families.
Somewhere between the onerous and expensive application process for non-EU immigrants combined with quotas and limited access to public services on one hand, and the EU single market’s wide open borders on the other, lies the best answer to Britain’s immigration conundrum. Unfortunately, Britain is not able to choose the perfect point along this spectrum because the EU mandates an all-or-nothing approach. You are either part of the European Union and a full member of the single market, or you are on the outside.
The free-movement aspect of the single market makes perfect sense in the context of the ‘ever-closer union’ that the EU’s founders envisaged would one day become a single political European superstate – indeed, such a goal cannot be realised without total, unimpeded free movement of people. But if the goal is anything less than total political union (and a vanishingly small proportion of Brits or other Europeans want to be subsumed into such an entity) then there is no real reason for the absolutist status quo, in which any controls on people coming from the EU to live and work in Britain are prohibited.
Unlike the United States of America – a real political, cultural and economic union – in Europe there are naturally occurring impediments to the free movement of people anyway, due to differences in language, culture, currency (not all of the EU is within the Eurozone) and other factors. Imposing modest, light-touch limitations in response to the wishes of the people need not bring the European Union crashing down or mean the imposition of ‘fortress Britain’.
The free movement of people within the EU may or may not remain the correct policy for Britain once all is said and done. But those who trumpet only the benefits and view any discussion of the cost as tantamount to xenophobia are guilty of shutting down an important debate whose time has come.
In this age of austerity, the main political fault line is over how much the rich should contribute versus the poor at a time of cuts to government services. Some of those who speak out most eloquently and forcefully on behalf of the poor are the same relatively wealthy middle class people who also unquestioningly support unlimited immigration.
These left-wing champions of the downtrodden would be aghast at the suggestion that their noble and high-minded political beliefs are in any way hurting the working classes for whom they presume to speak, but in supporting unlimited EU immigration and seeking to shut down any debate on the matter with accusations of racism and ignorance, they are doing just that – preserving benefits for themselves at the expense of the less privileged.
And if you personally benefit from immigration because it keeps your gentrified city neighbourhood more interesting and makes it affordable to get your house cleaned twice a week, but you don’t care about the effect – real or perceived – on those who are never likely to enjoy these benefits, how are you any better than the hated ‘bankers’ who protest higher taxes because (according to the received wisdom) they are good for society but bad for them?
The current immigration debate sees the British metropolitan left doing what it does best – high mindedly pontificating on what’s best for the country and for the less well-off in particular, and then being horrified when those same people actually express ideas and opinions of their own rather than following the script carefully prepared for them.
Immigrants studying for the “Life in the United Kingdom” exam often use the official Home Office approved test preparation book, which contains 408 practice questions to rehearse before subjecting themselves to the real thing. As a result, some newly-arrived immigrants find themselves better versed in fundamental aspects of British life than those of us who have lived here our whole lives.
Those politicians, journalists and activists who still seek to police the immigration debate and preordain its outcome could do worse than studying up on this one, known to every new British citizen:
Is the statement below TRUE or FALSE?
In the UK you are expected to respect the rights of others to have their own opinions.
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