Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Benefits and foreigners

As far as I’m aware, the threatened horde of Romanians and Bulgarians who were (according to Conservative politicians and tabloid newspapers) going to flood into the UK in their hundreds of thousands following the relaxation of the rules on 1 January has yet to happen.  I don’t really expect it to happen either – I suspect that this impending ‘crisis’ was manufactured from the outset.
That “stopping immigration” is a popular policy is undoubtedly true.  Immigration is an issue about which people do often express concerns, and vote-hungry politicians are only too happy to seize on those concerns.  But where do the concerns come from in the first place?
I can – after a fashion – understand how they might arise in areas with high immigrant populations.  But from personal experience of many years of canvassing and campaigning in areas with very low levels of non-UK residents (internal migration within the UK is a rather different issue, which I’m going to park, for today at least), concerns about immigration are much more general than that.  Opinion polls seem to confirm that view.
It’s tempting to blame the politicians themselves, or the tabloid press, but although both of them should take some responsibility for fanning the flames, I don’t see any evidence that they were responsible for striking the match.  They are “merely” reflecting back and exaggerating existing fears for their own purposes, be that winning votes or selling newspapers.
So where did the fire start – and why are so few trying, apparently, to extinguish it?  I’m afraid that it starts from a place deep inside the human psyche; an instinctive tendency to distinguish between “us” and “others”.  It gets rationalised around economics – jobs, housing, benefits – but none of those things are the root cause.  It is so deeply ingrained in our nature that I wonder if a distrust of “others” will ever be entirely eliminated.  It presumably served our species well over its long evolution, but whether it serves the needs of an overpopulated, resource-limited, and heavily armed modern world is another question entirely.
But if we can’t eliminate it, we can do more to counter its most pernicious expressions, by dealing in fact rather than myth.  Instead of that however, Cameron and his party seem to be determined to try and outbid UKIP – which has, incredibly, managed to turn itself into the “moderate” anti-foreigner party, when compared with nastier elements – in pandering to prejudice, with talk about stopping benefits for migrants and so on.
One of the most perceptive reactions to Cameron came from the Polish Foreign Minister, who asked “if Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn’t it also pay their benefits?”  I found that a very fair question indeed – and on two levels.
Firstly, at the level of the immigrants themselves: if they are earning money and paying taxes in any country, why indeed should that country not be responsible for funding their benefits when necessary?  It seems pretty irrefutable that the UK Exchequer has gained more in total income from taxes on the salaries of Eastern European immigrants than it has paid out in benefits, although one would never know that from listening to the likes of Cameron or Duncan-Smith.
But on a more general level, an insistence on only accepting those who have a job to go to and will “make a contribution”, to use the euphemism so beloved by the government, means that the source country loses those most able to earn money, sees their taxes flow into the coffers of another government, and still has to pay the benefit bill for those who remain.  It is not exactly a very fraternal action to take in relation to our European partners, is it?
The stigmatisation of benefits claimants is a worrying feature of modern politics; but seems to be becoming increasingly common across parties.  The double stigmatisation of benefit claimants who happen to be immigrants is doubly concerning. The history of identifying and excluding “others” may well be based on a deep human instinct, but it is not a happy history.  Encouraging it, for whatever short term and selfish purposes, is a dangerous course of action.

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