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The immigrants are welcome here

There’s a newsagent on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile which sells foreign papers. These days, the vast majority of titles on sale come not from France or Germany, but Poland, bought by the thousands of Polish workers who have come to work in Edinburgh in the last two years.

Indeed, we may shortly discover that Scotland’s second language is not Gaelic, but Polish. Who knows – perhaps in a couple of years time, the Scottish Executive will be setting up Polish language schools and and BBC Scotland will be producing childrens programmes for them.

Well, why not? Scotland has long had a substantial and highly industrious Polish community. The arrival of a further 20,000 in the last two years – part of an influx of 32,000 from Eastern European accession states since 2004, is unprecedented in Scottish history and is changing the social landscape. It is part of one of the most dramatic migrations Europe has ever experienced outside wartime.

Last year, the UK registered its largest year-on-year population increase since 1962, largely as a result of inward migration, taking Britain’s population over 60,000,000 million. 427,000 Eastern European workers 600,000 if the self-employed are taken into account – are known to have come here and another 200,000 may be working the black market. The Labour MP for Southampton, John Denham, has said the true number is closer to one million.

So, should we worry? Does this amount to ethnic dilution, a “swamping” – as the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett once put it – of our culture by foreigners? Is it a form of social dumping, creating a reserve army of cheap labour which will force down the wages of indigenous workers, as some trades unionists fear?

Was it acceptable for the government to embark on a course that could fundamentally alter the social, economic and even religious complexion of these islands without any proper debate about the consequences? Finally, does Scotland need these foreign job-seekers while there are still tens of thousands of young Scots on job-seekers allowance themselves?

These questions certainly need to be answered, and I think they can be. Diversity has been good for Britain, and Scotland needs a lot more of it. But the task of arguing this has been made immeasurably harder by catastrophic mishandling of the politics of immigration by a government which is as incompetent as it is divided on the issue, and which has destroyed public trust by wilful misuse of population statistics.

It was, simply, the worst spin in history. Two years ago, the government forecast that the number of Eastern Europeans who would want to come here following the accession of 10 new states to the EU would be less than 20,000. The real figure has been forty times that. Running scared over asylum seekers and hostility to the proposed EU constitution, the government simply demanded numbers that suited its case.

The failure to prepare Britain for this great white migration, still less to argue the case for it, has had disastrous consequences. It has fuelled the paranoia of those who believe that the government has all along been lying about immigration and the implications of European integration. It has shattered the political consensus on the liberal left about immigration and turned discontent among the voters into outright hostility. A Mori poll last week indicated that three quarters of the UK electorate want now support far stricter controls on immigration. Worse, more than half have serious doubts about whether allowing foreigners to settle in Britain is good for the country.

The debate about Polish plumbers has become a kind of cipher for a wider debate on immigration which has been largely suppressed in Britain since the days of Enoch Powell. Look at the websites, the comments posted on papers like the Scotsman, and there is widespread hostility to the “scum” as one correspondent there put it recently. Because the new immigrants are white, it is possible to use language which would be unacceptable, or even illegal, if applied to black immigrants. There is a thinly-disguised hostility in the media. Last week the Scottish Sun ran a story claiming that Polish immigrants were accessing pornography on library computers.

The government has responded by sending out conflicting messages. There have been suggestions of a review of the entire policy of EU immigration from the Industry Minister, Alastair Darling. The Home Secretary, John Reid, has argued for curbing the influx from two new accession states, Romania and Bulgaria, who are due to come on stream next year. This infuriated the Europe Minister, Geof Hoon, who has been arguing that it would be illegal under EU rules for Britain to discriminate against any workers legitimately seeking work here. Since the government figures have been so manifestly unreliable, it is open season on forecasting how many Romanians and Bulgarians will actually come here, but the figure of 350,000 is in widespread currency.

The Left has been all over the place too. No longer do calls for curbing immigration come solely from right wingers, racists and bigots. The Guardian commentator, Polly Toynbee, has argued that, in future, immigration from accession states should be limited until their GDP is matches to ours. Workers in Britain should not have their wages depressed by the flood of immigrants from low pay economies, she says, claiming that the day rates of building workers have halved since 2004. They come over here…

But this is not just an argument about pay levels. “Social democracy”, according to Toynbee , “needs enough social cohesion to persuade people that everyone benefits when resources are more fairly distributed. But people will resent paying taxes towards others if they feel national borders are porous to the whole world” By suggesting that the very integrity of British society could be imperilled by immigration, Toynbee is treading ground which the Liberal Left in Britain has long feared to tread for fear of being accused of sounding racist. Indeed, this argument could equally be applied to immigration from non-white countries. But because we are talking about Poles and Lithuanians, rather than Pakistanis and Indians, it doesn’t sound like Powellism.

Toynbee’s arguments parallel those of the “progressive nationalists” like the editor of “Prospect” magazine, David Goodhart, and Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality both of whom have been arguing for an end to multiculturalism. The Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly, made clear last week in a speech that the government has now accepted that the policy of encouraging ethnic and religious diversity must now be reviewed by a new “communities commission”. That there must now be “creative engagement” with minority cultures and populations. Ironically, white migration has been the catalysts for a change in attitudes on the left to all forms of race and assimilation.

The Conservatives are watching these developments with wry amusement. The Right has been arguing for decades for controls on immigration, for restrictions on labour mobility in Europe and for an end to multiculturalism. At the last election, the Tory leader, Michael Howard called for a kind of ‘citizenship test’ for Asian immigrants and was widely accused of “playing the race card”. The Tories were also criticised for forecasting that immigration from Eastern Europe would be far higher than the government forecast, though even they underestimated the scale of the influx by three hundred percent. No wonder the Daily Telegraph has been saying; “told you so”.

So, has the Right won the argument? Are we all Powellites now? No – the fact that the government has failed to mount the progressive case for immigration, doesn’t mean that it falls by default. For, far from destroying Britain, the recent inward migration is a tribute to the dynamism of the British economy under Labour, and its extraordinary capacity to generate jobs. The economic boom which has made Britain so wealthy in the last decade could not have happened without an influx of flexible and committed Labour prepared to turn its hand to virtually anything and willing to move to where the jobs are. Unfortunately, the government has failed to make this case effectively, partly because of the absence of the Chancellor.

Migration is one problem that the other big EU economies would love to have. It is a sign that Europe really is working.
In the 1990s, those who argued against European monetary integration said that it would create mismatches between investment and population. It was thought that people wouldn’t travel long distances, uproot their families, or live away from home for long periods. Therefore, it was argued, there would be overheating in economies which were booming, and in the slow-lane economies of Europe there would be slump and depression.

Well, the eurosceptics were wrong. Clearly, there is formidable mobility of Labour within the EU. People are prepared to travel thousands of miles to go to where the jobs are – and right now, the jobs are in Britain, particularly in Scotland. The latest job market figures indicate that nearly a half of Scottish companies have vacancies right now. Scotland is finally beginning to attract more immigrants, proportionately, than England.

But won’t this place a burden on Scotland? The idea that immigrants are a drain on the welfare state is nonsense. First of all, they don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, or housing benefits in their first four years. Most of the immigrants from Eastern Europe are young and single and most of the rest have families back home which they support with their earnings.

But they also support Scotland’s old and sick. This is because, according to the government’s own figures, the average new immigrant pays higher taxes than we do: #112 compared to #100 for the average British-born person. The Polish plumbers do not qualify for all the tax credits and other benefits we enjoy but they still pay for them.

Of course, there is the paradox of British unemployment increasing while immigration is at record levels. But this is largely a result of an inability of the British economy to find the kind of jobs that British workers want to do. Yes, there is growing inequality of income, and the rich are getting richer in Britain. But that is an imbalance that should be tackled through the taxation system and by increasing the minimum wage, not by locking out non- British workers who want to work in the jobs we don’t want to do.

Diversity is generally a good thing, and in employment it is particularly beneficial. Incoming workers bring with them different habits and attitudes as well as new skills. The sight of Polish workers willingly taking on jobs that we consider menial and making something of them, is good for all of us. They are building the economy we have allowed to fall into disuse, and are filling vacancies from bus drives to dentists.

Many of the Eastern Europeans want to start businesses, and if we can persuade them to do so here in Scotland, so much the better. But they are much more likely to want to take their earnings and their enterprise back to their home countries, because that is where most of the new migrants want to settle. As they do this, the economies of the Eastern European countries will prosper, and GDP and wage rates will rise there. In a few years, who knows, we may be going to look for jobs in Poland. It has happened before. Remember when labourers on English roads were all Irish? Not any more. Go to Dublin and you’ll find a there are now a lot of London accents amid the day-glo jackets.

Of course, economics isn’t everything, and people shouldn’t feel that their their indigenous culture is being transformed without their consent But I don’t see any sign that Polish people are taking over Scotland and I don’t know how you would tell if they did. Increased attendance at Catholic churches doesn’t seem constitute a clash of civilisations. This migration represents a form of mutual economic co-operation and self help which benefits Scotland as much as it benefits Poland.

There’s an old Polish saying: “ The guest sees more in an hour than the host sees in a year”. Eastern European immigrants are helping us see Scotland differently. As for me – I wonder how long it takes to learn Polish?

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


2 thoughts on “The immigrants are welcome here

  1. Interesting article. I agree. As a polish immigrant I must also say that I have never expirienced hostility in Scotland. I find Scots very friendly and supportive. I think it also depends on the immigrants. There are polish immigrants who don’t know how to behave and no wonder that people are negative towards them. I think most of people are kind to us if we are kind to them and it works in any place on earth. P.S. It would take you about a year to learn basic polish. Best greetings…

    Posted by Victor from Edinburgh | September 19, 2006, 3:37 pm
  2. One wonders why Mr McWhirter has failed to notice that the biggest influx of immigrants in Scottish history has come at the same time as the biggest emigration numbers since 1952..Of course the People emigrating have to be skilled,educated and productive members of their new society.The people from Eastern Europe coming to Scotland are certainly neither skilled nor educated although they are extremely cheap (If Scotland wants to compete against 2nd world countries for cheap labour then it will become a 2nd world country).What Scotland is doing is exporting the People that are needed for a 21st century economy and importing people for a 19th century economy.Hardly good news

    Posted by J.N. Calgary , Alberta | October 11, 2006, 2:21 am

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