Manchester – We Need To Talk About Immigration

27 March 2024 , categories: Immigration, Manchester, Meetings

With 1.2 million people entering into the UK in 2022 (net migration of 745,000), immigration has become a regular feature in news reports and politics. So why are people reluctant to discuss it? Guest speaker Hilary Salt believes a constructive debate is essential. She joined Politics in Pubs to say: 'we need to talk about immigration'.

On Wednesday 27th March 2024, Politics in Pubs met at the Welcome Inn, Bury Old Road, Whitefield, M45 6TA, Manchester (see here for location).  The topic under discussion was ‘We need to talk about immigration’.


With 1.2 million people entering into the UK in 2022 (net migration of 745,000), we need a measured and rational debate that we can all contribute to. Yet it is probably the last thing many of us think of bringing up in a conversation in the pub or around the water-cooler at work.

Do we feel caught in a pincer movement?  How many of us think “If I express support for any kind of immigration control, some people will call me a far right Nazi. Some might nod along with my views then say things that belong in a 1970s sitcom and make me feel really uncomfortable – but I could be so relieved not to be attacked that I don’t challenge those views.”?

It’s far easier to avoid either of these possibilities by just not discussing the subject. But that means we don’t get the chance to test our instinctive views, and that our voice isn’t heard in the political debate, so the politicians from the main parties and the “liberal elites” – the media, academics and think tanks – end up having their own debate which may not reflect our views.

We need to find a way of having this debate in a measured, rational and open way – where we can all say what we think and feel free to challenge each other without censoring what we say or playing the person rather than the ball.

Guest speaker, Hilary Salt confesses that she is one of those who is nervous about raising the topic of immigration.   Bravely, she joined Politics in Pubs to start the debate.

Four key strands

There are lots of different strands to the immigration debate and whilst they overlap and interweave, I want to separate out four main topics:

  • The numbers of immigrants and the effect of this on resources
  • The multiculturalism vs integration debate
  • The effects of immigration on the economy
  • The impact of both immigration and discussion on it on politics

The numbers

A lot of the discussion can tend to focus on the small boats but the detected levels of migrants arriving by that route is relatively small – around 80,000 in 2022 – we’ll come back to this a bit later and of course this doesn’t include those who are undetected but the big numbers are really in the numbers of legal migrants. I’m going to use 2022 figures because not all the 2023 ones are available yet and I want to be consistent. So in 2022, we had net immigration of 745,000 (originally reported as 606,000 by ONS) but note that this does mean the number of immigrants (before deducting those leaving the country) was over 1 million.

That number breaks down as:

  • 623,698 student visas (25% were for dependents)
  • 349,129 work visas (about 40% dependents)
  • 263,400 to those from Ukraine and Hong Kong
  • 52,126 family members of those in the UK

Student visas

The number of student visas stands out and there have now been a number of changes to limit the ability to bring dependents and to require that course are completed before people can apply for post study work visas. (There was some concern that people were just applying for short post grad courses, not completing them and just working). There are also plans to remove or reduce the right to work post study.

Work visas

The numbers of work visas are also high. This includes both the worker themselves and dependents of the worker (about 40% are dependents). About half of these are healthcare workers (care and home care workers, nurses, doctors). Despite the system being portrayed as for skilled workers and as a points based system, this route can be used to employ someone on just over £20,000 (what we pay a brand new apprentice). It’s also worth mentioning that the shortage occupations cover masses of jobs – just about all building trade jobs and most healthcare jobs).  A final stat on the workforce is that foreign born workers now make up around 20% of the UK workforce.

When does immigration become problematic?

I’m at heart an internationalist – I hate to see ordinary workers divided by nationalism. So in principle, I’m not opposed to immigration even at these levels. But these levels are problematic when:

  1. We don’t have a sufficiently robust common sense of purpose into which we can integrate newcomers (more of this later)
  2. We have sluggish economy unable to generate the resources to:
    • provide good quality, well paid jobs for all (more of this later)
    • build new towns, houses, schools and hospitals for all.

Time to review the rules on asylum?

It’s probably worth mentioning some of much smaller number of asylum seekers. We currently have 70-80,000 asylum claims each year. Refusal rates at initial decision are quite low compared to historic levels – 20 to 30%. Three quarters of those that fail appeal and around a third of these are successful on appeal. So overall about 80% are successful.

UN Convention on refugees

Asylum is protection given by a country to someone fleeing from persecution in their own country. According to Article 1 of the 1951 United Nations Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:

… owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.

As a signatory to the Convention, the UK grants asylum to those who meet these criteria.

European Convention on Human Rights

The UK also adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights, which prevents the UK from sending someone to a country where there is a real risk they may be exposed to torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Current global context

Whilst these numbers are small, there does seem to me to be room for a discussion about whether these requirements work in the current global context. And of course quite small numbers of asylum seekers can be costly in both resource and community relations when they are not allowed to work and need to be housed and supervised at public expense.

Multi-culturalism vs Integration

This has become quite a polarising discussion – at its most basic we are asking the question of whether it’s better that newcomers are integrated into their new communities creating one cohesive society or whether it’s better for us to stay in our lanes and retain different cultural traditions in communities that live alongside but apart.

Ghettoisation and conflict

My view is that there are some real problems with state sponsored multiculturalism and the celebration of identity. First it tends to exacerbate conflicts – this is not just between migrant communities and the old ones but also between different migrant communities. We have seen real flashpoints between Muslim and Hindu youths in Leicester, between Indian and Pakistani communities exacerbated by tensions over Kashmir, and between Afghan and Romanian men. And of course we have since last October seen the pro Palestinian marches happen with many members of the British Muslim communities going far beyond showing support for Palestine and supporting terrorist organization and displaying overtly Jew hating behaviour. Of course the vast majority of all these communities are peaceful and unproblematic. But the State’s sponsorship of the celebration of identity and many British elites portraying the country and its institutions as racist reinforces ghettoisation and conflict.

Does celebration of identity and difference divide communities?

I might go a little further than this and argue that a concentration on identity and differences actually divides migrant communities from those of the host nation. If we think back to the Brexit vote, there was a great opportunity for alienated members of the white British mainstream and non-white voters frustrated by the limitations of a bureaucratic EU to come together to build a new belief in a Britain outside the EU. And indeed many groups of disparate activists did spring up perhaps agreeing on little beyond a need to leave the EU. But identitarian politics portrayed these groups as on the one hand racist little Englanders and on the other Uncle Toms and so undercut the space for political cohesion. Rakib Ehsan points out the problem here “This normalisation of left-wing racism – and it is racism as it judges individuals by their race – is a growing illness in our democratic society”.

The State’s relationship with migrant communities

Another potentially divisive issue is that the State seems unwilling to engage directly with migrant communities – which it should be doing to reinforce the position that most are full UK citizens whose relationship with the British State should be the same as that of the rest of the UK. Instead they prefer to engage through “community leaders” – people who may or may not have any real legitimacy in their communities and who have on occasion turned out to be really unsavoury characters. Engaging through these proxies means the interests of different communities are played off against each other so further increasing tensions.

Shared experiences, shared responsibilities and national loyalty

If we want our current communities to work better, we need to forge a new, agreed sense of purpose and use that to work together creating shared experiences and clear shared responsibilities. Baudet explains this requirement by saying:  “National loyalty is the common point of reference for the rule of law and representative government and provides the sense of home into which strangers can be welcomed. It is impossible to collectively deliberate and ultimately decide upon political questions, unless an assembly may speak for a collective whole: the people. It is unlikely that disputing parties will accept the verdict of a judge, if they do not experience both themselves and the judge as part of the same community….if we want to continue living under representative governments with a shared rule of law, political organisation will have to continue to focus on strengthening national loyalties for “without a we, it won’t work”.

So we need more integration and common cause whilst of course celebrating the incidental diversities of different cultures such as cuisines and music, and indeed the potential improvements from their fusion.

Effects on the economy

We’ve already talked a bit about the kind of work migrants do. Despite the claims of a post Brexit points based skilled worker economy, it’s clear that many migrant workers are still being used a source of cheap labour – what Marxists would term a reserve army of labour. This has two effects – first it holds down the pay of workers here already. And second it removes the incentives employers might otherwise have to innovate their processes to improve productivity.

On the lowering of wages effect, note that 2.4m working people are on Universal credit – low pay doesn’t just affect the low paid, it means we all subsidise those employers to pay low pay!  A perhaps more contentious point is to suggest that we can either have a good welfare system and free public healthcare system or we can have open borders – trying to have both feels like placing too big strain on any national economy.  The UK’s productivity levels have been stagnant for 40 years – not just since the 2008 crisis. We need to tackle this as an urgent issue if we are to improve pay or rebuild UK plc.

Impact on politics

For my fourth point, I want to bring the discussion back to where I started.  I think current levels of migration are too high. It’s not that Britain is “full” – we have loads of space. But our economy is too weak to support the level of population increase we would see if high levels of immigration continue. ONS projection numbers which assume a reduction in immigration from current levels still show that 14million people will come to the UK in the 15 year period 2021-2036. (Equivalent to  Greater London, Greater Manchester and Birmingham). Our economy has proved incapable of providing adequate housing, schooling, training and healthcare for our existing population so we need to pause, solve our productivity problem, then we can think again.

“Immigrants welcome”….. as cheap labour?

But the current Government – and the probable incoming one – seem completely wedded to high immigration to benefit from cheap labour and as a way to increase overall GDP (even though GDP per person will fall if less productive labour is imported).

Smeared as far right or racist

This “immigrants welcome” approach is also mirrored by our other elite institutions – the media, universities, the church. The big gap between these two views means that discussion of it quickly becomes polarized. Rather than engage in discussion, our elites prefer to smear those raising issues with labels such as far right or racist. I understand this less but I think many ordinary working people who perhaps start with a very human instinct to help others, also end up in the same position. (On Question Time last week, the Middlesborough audience cheered the appeal to rescue those in small boats. That I understand – I don’t want to see people drowning. But to extend that to say all migrants are welcome is problematic). I think this discussion is perhaps better framed in the context of legal migration rather than focusing on the small boats. An important point is that the many healthcare workers we import from India and the Philippines leaves the healthcare system in those countries really struggling – is it really “kind” to encourage this?

The UK is a great place to live

This strained and difficult discussion also makes it very difficult for us to celebrate the reality of life in the UK for many migrant communities. As Konstantin Kisin has argued persuasively, the UK is a great place for many with low levels of racism, clear opportunities for migrants and their children to progress and far lower levels of race hatred than other countries in Europe and beyond. This is not to be overly romantic or to say that problems don’t exist. But as always in politics, when we have problems, we need to face them, debate them and find solutions.

Borders really matter

This leads to what to me is a really key concept in this debate. Borders really matter. If we think of the world as a borderless, global one, it feels clear to me that there is no role in that situation for us to exert any democratic control. It is only by having a delineated space within which we can exert our control and find meaning, direction, community and common goals – in other words that we can do politics.

Rapid and massive change fragments communities

The effect of a failure to maintain our borders is described poignantly by Paul Embery in his book “Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class.” I hadn’t realized when Joan and I drafted the blurb for this session that there is a chapter in this book called “We need to talk about Immigration”. Paul describes how between 2001 and 2011, the non UK born population of Barking and Dagenham increased by 205%. He explains how this rapid and massive change fragmented communities:

Streets and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition and with breath-taking speed as thousands of newcomers arrived into the borough. Most of these new arrivals – from places such as Poland, Lithuania and Nigeria – were fundamentally decent, hard-working and law-abiding people: but beyond narrow economic status, they often had little in common with those who had long lived in the community they had joined. The looked, spoke and lived their lives differently.

Politicians turning a blind eye

He argues that the old communities were bewildered and disoriented at losing their sense of cultural attachment and turned to politicians for help – but were roundly turned upon and accused of racism.  But he says: “they were not blaming migrants , nor pandering to racism , nor taking the side of “the bosses”. Rather they were criticizing the system that had brought this situation upon them. In particular they were attacking politicians for turning a blind eye to their predicament”

Racist mug

This idea that any discussion or criticism of immigration is automatically racist seems to have grown and grown. For an indication of how polarised the discussion is likely to be in the General Election campaign, it might be worth reminding ourselves of the storm that erupted in the 2015 election over the #racistmug. Labour had a number of mugs produced saying on one side “I’m voting Labour” and on the other side, one of their five policy pledges, one of which was “Controls on Immigration”. Whilst the actual policy was relatively modest – more border controls, stopping criminals entering the UK, a cap on immigrants from outside the EU, the reaction was furious:

Dianne Abbott: This shameful mug is an embarrassment. But the real problem is that immigration controls are one of our 5 pledges at all

Frankie Boyle said the mug showed “Britain’s criminally stupid attitudes to race and immigration. Britain is the true scrounger, the true criminal”

John Wight: the mug will be a collector’s item for racists up and down the country…Immigration is a euphemism for the politics of race, however you want to cut it, offering safe terrain for every swivel-eyed racist seeking legitimacy and a mainstream audience”

Dan Hodges said policies were “racist dog whistling, moral cowardice, the same failed divisive rhetoric on immigration that has consistently let Britain down”

David Lammy: “We’re a pro-immigration party: let’s not race to the bottom trying to out-kip UKIP”

Policing of a moral law

Ben Cobley in his book “The Tribe” notes that:  “The remarkably absolutist and moralistic character of the denunciations shows us how central immigration is as a cause for the left liberal family to gather round, one that conclusively divides us from them… There is something more than just political choice to this: rather it is a form of policing, of a sort of moral law. Any form of speech that strays from the consensus attracts the strongest condemnation, helping deter others who might be tempted to follow whilst serving as a good group bonding exercise for those who remain onside”.

Immigration is a legitimate policy debate

Since 2015, the use of hyperbolic denunciation that limits the ability to raise immigration as a legitimate policy debate has continued. One reason we need to practice and engage in this debate is to stand up against this attack on free speech. Whilst it’s difficult not to react to what are often vicious ad hominem attacks, we need to respond with reasoned debate and an insistence that such a debate is legitimate.

Idle talk

Cobley goes on to analyse the way in which immigration is discussed in terms of Martin Heidegger’s “Being and Time”. This is quite complex and I am not sure I have entirely grasped it but Heidegger uses the notion of “idle talk” – what we might call gossip or chatter. But the key thing is that the content of “idle talk” doesn’t have to be true – it’s more about how we signal to others that we belong to the same club and operates as a kind of call and response effect. (I don’t mean this to sound patronizing in a “dog whistle” kind of a way – we have lots of “call and response” little traditions – “how are you” “I’m fine thanks”). But Heidegger says:  “what is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so”.  I think this means that however uncomfortable it might be, we have to challenge the idle talk because otherwise it becomes true.  I hope that leads us nicely into our discussion tonight.

Thank you Hilary, for outlining why we need to talk about immigration and for prompting an excellent, measured discussion about this topic.  As always, a big thank you to our lovely hosts at The Welcome Inn.  Cheers all!

Who is Hilary Salt?

Hilary is an actuary and partner at First Actuarial LLP, a business she co-founded 20 years ago that now employs nearly 500 people across the UK. She provides pensions consultancy advice to employers, trade unions and public service organisations, and is the independent actuarial adviser to the NHS Pension Scheme’s Scheme Advisory Board.

Hilary developed the ground-breaking CDC proposal with the Communication Workers Union and Royal Mail, and has worked with government to introduce the legislation to facilitate this. She is a member of the Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries.

Hilary has two grown up sons, a lovingly tended garden, a VW campervan and a season ticket to Old Trafford.  Although she has been accepted as the SDP’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Wythenshawe and Sale East, Hilary attended Politics in Pubs to introduce tonight’s topic rather than to canvass votes.

Forthcoming dates

Manchester – Sunday 21st April 2024 2pm

Cancelling Cancel Culture presents ‘What makes more sense, God or Atheism?’  We will look at this challenging topic from various sides and will welcome contributions and questions from believers, atheists and agnostics alike! Come have your faith (or lack thereof) challenged! Please join us at the Briton’s Protection, Manchester.

Manchester – Wednesday 24th April 2024 7.30pm

Politics in Pubs welcomes Willie Sullivan, Senior Director of the Electoral Reform Society.  He will lead a discussion entitled:

Does the way we elect our politicians really represent the people of Britian?

Purley – Wednesday 17th April 2024 7pm

Croydon Constitutionalists will be discussing:

Is it time for England to dissolve the union?

Leeds – Wednesday 24th April 2024 7pm

Leeds Salon welcomes author and University of York lecturer Remi Adekoya to discuss his recent book ‘It’s Not About Whiteness.  It’s About Wealth: How the Economics of Race Really Work.’

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