06 October 2016

Immigration

Another stray paragraph that I'm rescuing from the cutting floor and a follow-up.

One of the defining political issues of our time is immigration. Primates tend to think of this as strangers coming to live amongst us. It's stressful and it takes time to accommodate and/or assimilate them. But they also invigorate our gene pool and bring new ideas, attitudes, and practices, and so there are benefits to immigration as well. In recent decades net immigration to the UK has been in the hundreds of thousands each year. In 2015, 300,000 migrants arrived. This is less than half a percent of the population, but it is also a large town. If you set up a new town of 300,000 people it would require considerable investment in infrastructure: roads, schools, shops, health care, governance, police and so on. And yet, government has been cutting funding to all these functions at the local level creating strain on resources.  Even the mainstream are now using the phrase "housing crisis". As social primates having and maintaining groups norms is one of our main survival strategies. If our communities are unstable, if our standard of living is in decline, then we are unlikely to welcome strangers coming to live with us because we're already anxious about our society.

But let's not pretend that the UK is not also a very wealthy country with relatively high wages and a high standard of living compared to many nearby countries, for example in Eastern Europe or North Africa. So of course enterprising people will want to come here to seek a better life. Chances are that if someone reaches escape velocity from their own country to wind up in ours, then they are enterprising or desperate (I find the practice of referring to refugees as "migrants" puzzling). People often say things to me about the national character of Aotearoans based on Kiwis they meet in London. But they never meet the people who are put off by the high cost of travel, daunted by the difficulties, or who just want to stay home. Of course the young folk they meet in London are a lively, outgoing, friendly bunch. But they would be, wouldn't they? I expect many of the people I grew up with never made it out of our small town, let alone all the way to Britain.

I write this as a sort of inadvertent migrant. I think Britain is undergoing a crisis of identity. Unlike many other nations, the national character here has few unifying characteristics and many divisive ones. The idea of Britain in the post-imperial era is up for grabs. Popularist politics mean that we'll get no help in this from our political leaders - their "vision" is simply to remain in power. Society is fragmented and possibly atomising. And it is into this lack of cohesion and clarity that outsiders are pouring, fuelling the uncertainty. The most obvious result has been the vote to leave the European Union, yet another cause of division.

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