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UK govt using immigration as a scapegoat to cover up austerity failures

John Wight is a writer and commentator specializing in geopolitics, UK domestic politics, culture and sport.

Published time: January 15, 2014 15:15
Romanian children are moved along by their father as he arrives with some of their possessions at the Ozone Leisure Centre in East Belfast (Reuters / Cathal McNaughton)

The poisonous climate which currently prevails in Britain on the issue of immigration reflects the extent to which the British government’s extreme austerity agenda has been responsible for a lurch to the right in British politics.

This has been most pronounced within the government itself as, under pressure from the upsurge in support for the anti-immigration politics of the far right UK Independence Party, it has embraced this hitherto marginal political party’s anti-EU and anti-immigration narrative.

Up to the last UK general election in 2010, which brought into existence the current Tory and Lib Dem coalition government, UKIP and its noxious brand of xenophobic and anti-immigrant views were considered beyond the pale by the political mainstream and the vast majority of people.

Three years later a recent poll of marginal Conservative parliamentary constituencies found that UKIP’s support had gone up by 8 percent since the last general election, while support for the Tories has plunged by around 10 percent. With the next general election now only 18 months away, the conclusion is clear – natural Tory voters have been turning to UKIP in significant numbers, attracted by their more robust views on the EU and immigration – both widely though wrongly perceived to constitute a threat to the British economy, jobs, and a drain on the welfare state.

Such anti-immigration sentiment has grown in popularity and traction since 2010, which has been created by the government’s dogged determination to implement austerity, regardless of the damage it has done and is doing both to the economy and social cohesion in the wake of a relentless assault on public spending, wages, and the welfare state. It has given rise to fear, anger, and alienation among a large section of the population, making people more receptive to the scapegoating of immigrants as a consequence.

Most recently, the rhetoric from the government over the prospect of hordes of Rumanian and Bulgarian migrants invading the country after temporary work restrictions were lifted on January 1 in accordance with EU legislation – an invasion which is yet to materialize – is a case in point. Citizens of both nations have been slandered and smeared in a manner that can only be described as racist, with them characterized as criminals, thieves, and benefit scroungers. For any politician to descend to this level is a disgrace. For government ministers to do so is worse. It even produced a schism within the cabinet, when the Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable recently compared Prime Minister David Cameron to Enoch Powell, the notorious Tory MP of the 1960s whose infamous speech against the flow of migrants to the UK has gone down in British political history as a racist manifesto.

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron is shown around a house in Southall in London on December 18, 2013 which was raided earlier in the day by immigration officers. (AFP Photo / David Bebber)

The truth when it comes to immigration is that it has benefited Britain. A recent study by academics from University College London’s Migration Research Unit revealed that over the past decade migrants have made a net contribution of £25 billion to the economy, with migrants from the EU making the largest contribution of all; according to the study they have paid on average 34 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits between 2001 and 2011.

One of the co-authors of the report was Professor Christian Dustmann. On its findings, he told The Guardian: “Our research shows that in contrast with most other European countries, the UK attracts highly educated and skilled immigrants from within the EEA as well as from outside. What’s more, immigrants who arrived since 2000 have made a very sizeable net fiscal contribution and therefore helped to reduce the fiscal burden on UK-born workers.”

He continued: "Our study also suggests that over the last decade or so the UK has benefitted fiscally from immigrants from EEA countries, who have put in considerably more in taxes and contributions than they received in benefits and transfers. Given this evidence, claims about 'benefit tourism' by EEA immigrants seem to be disconnected from reality.”

The idea of implementing a 5-year ban on migrants being able to claim benefits contains its own logic in the context of austerity, wherein a crisis of greed and recklessness in the private sector has been turned into a crisis of public spending. Immigration offers an easy scapegoat for the pain being felt by millions as a result of the extreme cuts being made to public spending, with the poor and low waged bearing most of the burden. However it sets a dangerous precedent, given that around 1.6 million British people are currently living and working throughout the EU. In other words, the scapegoating of migrants in Britain could result in the scapegoating of British expatriates overseas.

Demonstrators gather in central London on October 20, 2012, as they prepare to march against the government's austerity policies and call for an alternative economic strategy that puts jobs and growth first. (AFP Photo / Carl Court)

But by far the most worrying aspect of the poisonous turn which the debate on immigration has taken in Britain recently, is that it illustrates the extent to which mainstream politicians have failed to learn the lessons of history. During the last great global depression in the 1930s, the scapegoating of foreigners, and national, ethnic and religious minorities led inexorably to the rise of fascism and everything that followed. While we may be some way from that particular abyss today, the fact that the normalization of anti-immigrant sentiment in Britain has reached the point where it has been embraced by the government itself has to be a matter of deep and growing concern.

At the beginning of 2014 Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world, with one in three children living in poverty, millions suffering fuel poverty, and the number of food banks multiplying up and down the country in response to growing demand. This state of affairs is not the fault of immigrants or immigration. This state of affairs is the fault of the rampant greed that has blighted British society over the past three decades.

The enemy of people in Britain is neither immigrants or immigration. It is the rich and a government that governs on their behalf.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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