Three recent articles in the British press this week caught my eye. All had to do with immigration, which has become the top concern for voters before a general election next year and will be a deciding consideration in the promised 2017 referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union.
The first, in the Guardian, elaborates on a survey conducted by Ipsos Mori in 14 countries that compares public perceptions with reality on hot-button topics, including the scale of immigration, the number of Muslims versus Christians living in each country and teenage pregnancy.
The results show just how pessimistic — and ignorant — people can be about the subjects that disturb them. British respondents, for example, believed on average that 21 per cent of the population was Muslim and 24 per cent were immigrants (born overseas). The actual figures are 5 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively.
The second article was the top story on the homepage of the Daily Mail, a British newspaper with a daily circulation of about 1.9 million and 146 million unique online visitors last month. Here's the headline: "Immigration - what a mess! 50,000 in Britain illegally are missing, minister says we'll never control our borders while in EU, and France says we are migrant 'El Dorado.'"
The El Dorado comment came from the mayor of Calais, France, who is dealing with immigrants trying to force their way onto trucks, trains and ferries to get to Britain. The mayor says they are drawn by the promise of 37 pounds (47 euros) a week in state benefits they could receive if they make it across the Channel. The Daily Mail fails to point out that the Calais mayor is wrong: Migrants want to go to Britain because it is easier to find work there (try living in London on 37 pounds a week). A recent study found that migrants who had arrived since 1999 were 45 per cent less likely to claim state benefits than native-born Brits.
There's a clear link between what Britons think about the scale of immigration and the messages they are getting from their media and politicians. Defence Minister Michael Fallon warned a few days ago that the country was being "swamped" by immigrants and that its towns were "under siege" by workers from the rest of the EU.
Conservatives such as Fallon are spooked by the success of the UK Independence Party, which recently won its first parliamentary seat from a by-election in Clacton, Essex. UKIP proposes to take Britain out of the EU, and argues that doing so would cut immigration. Because so many recent immigrants come from other EU countries, and under EU rules Britain can't stop citizens of member states from coming, the two issues have become fused. Just why immigration should be such good political tinder is a different question.
Clacton is typical of the kind of seats UKIP is targeting in next year's election: The seaside retirement community has the second-highest proportion of people over 65 in the country, at 30 per cent; it is relatively poor and white (97.4 per cent): and has very few immigrants (3.5 per cent). Nevertheless, it is places like Clacton where fear of immigration seems to be most pronounced. London, where 36.6 per cent of the population was born outside the country, is by far the most relaxed about migrants (including when the question is asked of white British Londoners).
The final story was a commentary in the Daily Telegraph by the columnist Janey Daley, in which she accused liberals of fuelling racism by refusing to talk about immigration and attempting to paint as racist anyone who raised the subject.
Daley is right that this issue needs to be discussed. The British population demonstrates some of the most hostile attitudes toward immigration, and the subject has become more toxic over the last 15 years or so. Between 1993 and 2012, a period when the economy grew and became much more open, the number of immigrants doubled. There is a need for a real discussion of how to cope with the expansion, and how to better regulate illegal immigration and unregistered employment.
Daley's argument would be stronger, however, if it was even-handed. Her complaint should also target the anti-migration lobby — from the Daily Mail to UKIP and Conservative members of Parliament — which fails to acknowledge that these rising numbers of migrants benefit natives. Immigrants contribute substantially more in net taxes (34 per cent compared to minus 11 per cent); are on average better educated; and are essential to the continued operation of public services such as the National Health Service that they are allegedly "swamping."
So yes, let's have a debate about immigration in Britain, but a little honesty about the facts would make the "no" camp sound a lot less xenophobic.
Marc Champion – Bloomberg News
— Champion writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg View.
Image: Philippe Huguen / AFP / Lehtikuva