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A Tale of Two Immigration Speeches: What Is Britain So Afraid Of?

28/11/2014 10:34 GMT | Updated 27/01/2015 10:59 GMT

As the details from David Cameron's long-awaited immigration speech leaked out Friday morning, the overall impression was one of insecurity, of an apprehensive leader who did not have confidence in his own stated policies.

"We have real concerns", Mr. Cameron insisted, declaring that British concerns about migration "are not unreasonable or outlandish". Here's a pro tip: self-assured premiers take for granted that their policies are rational and sound. They don't need to cajole the public into acquiescence. "We deserve to be heard", he maintained, declaring that "frankly", he just "will not understand" if a "sensible way forward cannot be found". A brave and uncompromising stance, Mr. Prime Minister. All the hallmarks of a fearless politician, innately comfortable in his own skin.

Britain's problems stem - allegedly - from an influx of legal migrants coming from other European Union (EU) countries. The threat is so grave that all three mainstream parties (Labour, LibDems, and the Tories) have become caught up the rhetoric, all desperately trying to out-Ukip Ukip, while Nigel Farage stands idly by, rubbing his hands with barely concealed glee. Having masterfully played the role of spoiler, he can just sit and watch while everybody else gets in touch with their inner alarmist. Regrettably, everybody is obliging with distressing enthusiasm: there has been talking of cutting benefits, forced repatriation and contravening EU laws on freedom of movement. Fortress Britain, indeed.

Never mind the fact that the proposed changes have little chance of being fully and effectively implemented before the next general election, so amount to nothing more than political posturing. Ignore, too, that some of the Prime Minister's proposed 'red lines' (such as the ones requiring European migrants to have a job offer before they arrive and threatening to chuck them out after six months if they can't find work) almost certainly flout long-agreed upon EU principles, are destined to result in drawn-out legal challenges and will wreak havoc at the border as agents try to determine whether EU or national laws are applicable.

Lost in much of the British debate about immigration is an acknowledgement that it works both ways: there are as many British citizens living abroad in Europe--2.2 million--as there are Europeans living in the United Kingdom. There are another couple million Brits living outside the EU, primarily in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. It is estimated that one million British subjects live in Spain alone, many of them retirees who do nothing to contribute to their adopted country's bottom line. One wonders if the Spanish authorities are anxious to hurry these freeloaders back from whence they came.

Migration is an emphatically inflammatory topic, touching as it does on national security, welfare, and jobs. It also invokes humanity's primal need to establish boundaries between 'us' and 'them'. Debates about immigration can provide an unfortunate staging ground for some of mankind's baser instincts, but it is understandable why this issue provokes such strong reactions, especially in the United Kingdom -a smallish island still recovering from an economic crisis. Great Britain, like any sovereign nation, has the right to control its borders, prioritize the needs of citizens, and manage its finances by limiting access to the welfare state.

If only any of the hype were true.

Migration to the UK is definitely up - dramatically so. Figures released yesterday indicate that there was a 43% increase in migrants coming to the UK between June 2013 and June 2014, with approximately 583,000 people arriving, adding to the 7.8million foreign born residents and citizens already here. Of course, approximately 323,000 people left Britain over the same period, leaving net migration figure of only 260,000, but that number is not nearly as provocative and almost certain to be ignored.

Approximately 42% of these new arrivals came for work, and about 30% came to study. So far, so uncontroversial. These are people that contribute to the country's coffers by paying taxes, renting flats, buying groceries and subsidizing British students though exorbitant tuition fees. A significant chunk of them are not eligible to access the NHS, meaning they also pad the pockets of private physicians. That leaves roughly 160,000 other migrants who have stormed the shores for apparently more nefarious purposes, such as the dreaded scourge of 'benefits tourism'. Conceivably, these theoretical layabouts could be a drain on the system and a drag on the economy - except for the fact they are far outnumbered by native-born occupants of Benefits Street.

Alas, it seems Britain's collective xenophobia is wildly misplaced: according to several reputable sources, there is 'little evidence' of people migrating for the express purpose of claiming benefits. Immigrants, it seems, are demonstrably less likely to be in social housing than native born citizens. The Telegraph reports that according to the UK government's own figures, in 2014, 4.9million (92.6%) working age benefit claimants were British while only 131,000 (2.5%) were EU nationals. The number of recipients from outside the EU was 264,000 (five per cent). This is not a typo: British nationals make up more than 90% of benefits claims, which is a thoroughly inconvenient statistic for politicians of all stripes, because who will they blame if they can't blame the immigrants?

However, seasoned British pols are not ones to let facts get in the way of hyperbole, and scaring your citizens is a great way to get them to vote, so we are unlikely to see a dialling down of rhetoric any time soon. This is an enduring shame, because the United Kingdom never seems more like an anxious, fading empire than when it is enacting fear-based, reactionary policies designed to placate the most extreme elements of its populace.

A confident country, comfortable with its place in the 21st Century, doesn't need to create straw men or scapegoats. A confident country takes one look at the tired, poor, huddled masses on its doorstep and says:

'My fellow Americans, tonight, I'd like to talk with you about immigration. For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It's kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities - people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose'.

That's right: Britain's preening, swaggering 'special friend' has upstaged it yet again, to great effect. President Obama's speech from last week was the polar opposite from Prime Minister Cameron's remarks today. It hit all the right notes in announcing unilateral executive action to tackle America's enduring immigration dysfunction. He admitted that the system is broken, challenged opponents for being obstreperous, and acknowledged the 'hypocrisy' of the middle classes for supporting a status quo where we're perfectly happy for the dreaded 'other' to 'make our beds and pick our fruit', so long as they stay in the shadows.

Were his remarks motivated by a complicated combination of political point-scoring, concerns about his legacy and frustration at the opposition's perpetual refusal to support any of his policies? Probably. But it doesn't matter. Because beyond the inspiring rhetoric was a clear-eyed assessment that even as his administration had carried out more deportations than any President in US history, 'tracking down, rounding up, and deporting millions of people isn't realistic'. And it isn't. Not just logistically, but philosophically: the President identified migrants of dubious legality as 'our classmates, our neighbours, our friends', and recognised that by and large, people do not leave their homelands 'in search of a free ride or an easy life'. They come 'to work, to study, to serve in the military and... contribute to America's success'. These people have become part of the everyday fabric of American life.

The United Kingdom's immigration concerns are different from those of the United States - the issue is not so much about being overwhelmed by irregular migrants as it is addressing the realities of a growing population and a shrinking economy. But the answer is not wild-eyed hysteria and barely concealed racism. The United Kingdom should be exulting in the fact that it has created a vibrant, thriving nation that proves irresistible to so many, not cowering behind the widespread dissemination of false information in a desperate attempt to cleave onto an obsolete notion of what being 'British' really means.

The modern world is multicultural - in Britain, in America, in Europe and beyond. Clinging to outdated nostalgia of a time when middle-aged Anglo-Saxon men ruled the roost is a recipe for disaster. Britain needs to stop romanticising 'us' and stop demonising 'them'. Britain needs embrace it immigrant hordes for the incredible resources that they are, and reclaim its rightful place as a power broker in the 21st Century. But first, Britain needs to stop being afraid.