We create new barriers to immigration at our own peril

This was published on the Guardian Comment is Free website 21 October 2008

Keep xenophobia at bay
21 October 2008

Britain is the most internationally open of EU nation states. We create new barriers at our peril. Yesterday Phil Woolas, Britain's new immigration minister, sat beside his Dutch opposite number and said that immigration policy needs a rigorous counting in and counting out of everyone who enters Britain. His Dutch colleague would have been bemused as it is impossible to count who enters and leaves the Netherlands because there are no longer any borders there. Even if Europe gave up on the free flow of people and tried to reintroduce stringent frontier controls it still would not work.
When I worked in Geneva 25 years ago at a time when passports were checked at main borders there were still dozens of small roads going from France into Switzerland which had no permanent border checks on them. Schengen – the system that allows Europeans to move about freely – was introduced not in a fit of Euroliberalism but because the system of trying to stop and examine the papers of every car, lorry, bike, or walker crossing the hundreds of thousands border roads of Europe had become impossible.Today most cars drive across Swiss border controls without any check.
Britain actually was a forerunner with its mini-Schengen with Ireland. Even though Ireland is a sovereign republic with policy that over the decades has been at times inimical to Britain, no British politician – even during the worst of the IRA terror attacks – suggested imposing border control or passport checks on Irish citizens coming into Britain.
Recently, the Lib Dems in South Yorkshire distributed a xenophobic newsletter attacking a Labour councillor of Danish origin who has lived in Britain for 24 years. The Lib-Dems described her as "non-British" in a cheap BNP-style dog whistle to local voters. Yesterday in the Commons, UKIP's sole parliamentary representative, Bob Spink, wanted to know how many "non-British" people there are in the workforce. Tories fell in behind the UKIP man and shouted at ministers about the level of this new category of "non-Brit" who work here.
The answer is that we cannot know unless we want to start counting every Irish, American, Australian, Canadian and other foreigner all the time. The queues at our airports are surely long enough as it is without insisting on another long line for everyone who catches a Ryanair or Easyjet holiday flight to be registered.
There are 300,000 "non-Brit" sudents at our universities providing an economic lifeline to stretched university finance as well as creating new cohorts of young men and women who, one hopes, will appreciate their stay in Britain and become economic and political friends of Britain when they go home.
The Federation of Poles produced a dossier of Daily Mail headlines this year which described Poles in lurid, hostile, xenophobic language. Migration Watch constantly attacks foreigners in Britain. Yet now the Poles are going home fast. The easiest way to cut immigration is to have a recession.
Britain has 24,000 foreign-owned firms according to a parliamentary answer I recently received. I would like to see that figure go up and when I am abroad at economic conferences I promise foreign investors they will be welcome in South Yorkshire despite Lib Dem and BNP xenophobia.
But if all the language from top Tories is about limiting the presence of foreigners in Britain and ministers echo that refrain, why on earth should anyone come to a country where the media-political discourse is so hostile?
Britain's economic comparative advantage under Blair and Brown is that we are the most internationally open of EU nation states. We create new barriers and type-cast "non-Brits" as the unwelcome other at our peril.
After the Russia's invasion and dismemberment of Georgia, David Cameron said he wanted to punish Russian businessmen visiting Britain with heavy new visa restrictions. Given today's news about the Tories and the oligarchs, Mr Cameron may regret his comments. But as a strong critic of Russian geo-political bullying I welcome the presence of 150,000 Russians in Britain adding and spending wealth in our country. The dispute with Russia is with the neo-authoritarian Kremlin. The wider and deeper the Russian economy grows the better and while Mr Cameron today has questions to answer about George Osborne and Russian billionaires Britain should not seek to punish Russian economic actors.
If I believed there were easy measures that would reduce asylum seeker backlogs, send back the economic migrants who abuse the asylum rules, or reduce tensions when my constituents hear languages they cannot understand, practices they do not share, or ways of life they cannot understand, I would embrace them.
In the 1930s, the Daily Mail described Britain as an over-crowded island which should prevent German Jews from emigrating here. Then our population was 30 million. Today it is twice that but still only 10% of UK land surface has dwellings on it. And with a bigger population we have become richer and freer.
The Tory idea of a population limit is not far off Canute telling the tide not to come in. We have raised the age at which people can marry. Our brothels and massage parlours pullulate with teenage girls trafficked into Britain to satisfy ever-increasing demand for paid-for sex. But we cannot marry a non-EU citizen until he or she is over 21. Again, as with English language lessons (as if the 800,000 Brits in Spain were expected to speak Spanish) I have no objections but these are surface scratching measures.
Britain has to be open for business, for ideas, for people. The immigration debate as defined by the Tories, the Daily Mail, Migration Watch and the BNP is about shutting down Britain.