New spin on same old story

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Ken Olende demolishes the new arguments put forward by liberal commentators about the "dangers" of immigration, and the intellectual cover they give to right wing ideas over race.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson's programme, The Truth About Immigration, was the latest step in a concerted attempt to redefine the "liberal" agenda on immigration.

Two recent books, Britain's Dream by David Goodhart and Exodus by Paul Collier, try to stake the same ground with more intellectual clout. Both are dreadful and shallow.

Goodhart is director of the Demos think-tank and former editor of Prospect magazine. Collier is an Oxford professor and former advisor to the World Bank. All three deploy similar arguments in favour of controlled immigration.

They present a supposed competition between immigrants who "benefit" from migration and British-born working people who "suffer" from it.

Their key argument is that it is not racist to be against mass immigration. Collier states, "Enoch Powell closed down British discussion of migration policy for over 40 years" with his 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech. But this is untrue.

Immigration was widely discussed in parliament, pubs and the media before the passing of restrictive acts - including the Immigration Act 1971, the Nationality Act of 1981, and the immigration acts of 2002, 2006 and 2009.

However, it is true that, in the same way that the Holocaust made all scientific racism untenable for generations, Powell made it harder to put forward glib, unsupported generalisations without being exposed as racist. This is what they don't like.

Labour Party advocates of a new anti-immigration consensus argue that it represents a shift from the neoliberalism championed by Tony Blair, because it focuses on the interests of the "white working class".

The Blue Labour project once favoured by Ed Miliband pushed just such a view. In 2011 it argued, "Increased flexibility across borders has brought huge benefits to urban, liberal middle classes... But for those who are less educated...it has often meant an erosion of jobs, wages and autonomy."

But the same year Blue Labour became an embarrassment when its leader, Maurice Glasman, called for a ban on all immigration. So the latest versions of the theory suggest that the problem is not immigration as such, but assimilation.

Goodhart accepts Tory David Willetts' implausible theory that welfare states only work in "culturally homogenous societies". Collier puts forward the apparent difficulty of "absorption" as a reason for controlling immigration.

Both accept the idea of fixed nations with fixed interests, and largely internal timetables of national development.

Jonathan Portes' review of Goodhart in the London Review of Books pointed out its many factual errors. But Portes was chief economist for the Treasury. His interest in immigration is how it may benefit Britain's ruling class.

So he had less to say about Goodhart's argument that immigration pushes welfare costs up. To critique that would require questioning privatisation policies in general.

Collier's world view excludes class and imperialism. Immigration, he states, primarily benefits the immigrant. He writes, "If Mali had a similar social model to France, and maintained it for several decades, it would have a similar level of income." But Mali does not. Imperial powers and global companies are determined that it never will.

Goodhart too dismisses any active role for the state or imperialism, saying, "Britain acquired a large, non-European, minority population like it acquired an empire, in a fit of absence of mind."

And all these commentators believe that racism is no longer significant. So Goodhart pontificates, "The stereotype of oppression is carefully preserved in black street culture and - to some - justifies transgressive behaviour. The fact that the stereotype is, by and large, no longer justified by the attitudes of today's teachers and police officers has not been enough."

Collier's book is full of graphs that show the ways immigration causes social problems, but they don't relate to the real world. In one case he actually says, "This is something that we know does not happen to any significant extent in actual migration."

These commentators vary over the degree to which immigration is "good" for the national interest or "bad" for ordinary people. You wait in vain for the production of some evidence, but they remain resolutely silent.

The weakness of these "common sense" arguments is exposed by the attempt to intellectualise them. But they remain dangerous. There is a reason why the "I'm not a Powellite but, something has to be done about immigration" argument is so popular with all these people.

No one in this "liberal" debate is keen to bring in the real causes of social problems - the ruling class themselves. And none of them has anything to say about the fact that it makes a difference how people organise.

Struggle in the workplace, either by migrants or indigenous workers, is central to whether bosses can get away with undercutting wages.

But to discuss these issues would require accepting that bosses and workers have different interests.