Friday 10 January 2014

Meadowcroft on migrants

I did not see the  BBC 2  programme  on Immigration last Tuesday but my friend Michael Meadowcraft did and has given me permission to reproduce his letter to the presenter Nick Robinson.

I am particularly struck by Michael's suggestion that the opinion polls should pose the question:
“Would you be in favour of being prevented from living and working in other EU countries?” which, of course they never do. 

I have personally taken advantage of freedom of movement to work as a migrant in three different countries: Papa New Guinea for most of the 1970s, Malawi in Central Africa for a couple of years at the end of the 80s and France for a year in 2004/5.  I have no doubt that these experiences have widened my perspectives considerably and made me a better teacher, and I like to think that some of the people I have taught in those countries have benefited too.

So migration/immigration is, as Michael points out, very much a two-way affair.  Here's his letter


Dear Nick Robinson

I suspect you “turn off” responses longer than a sentence or two but I hope you will find a minute to read this e-mail which is based on over half a century in politics, much of it engaged in race relations both here and overseas, not least as an elected representative in Leeds, a city with significant tensions arising from immigration  .

I am writing this following your excellent programme on Immigration on BBC2 last Tuesday. It is by no means a complaint but rather an expression of frustration!

I do not believe that it is either possible or profitable to hide away from the issue of immigration and, therefore, I applaud the fact that in the programme you tackled a number of difficult and sensitive issues in a more rigorous way than is usual.

My concerns are as follows:

[1] the argument - as was the case with your programme - is currently entirely one way, ie on people coming to Britain, when it is two-way, with considerable opportunities for British citizens to emigrate to other EU countries - including Bulgaria and Romania - and to prosper and have a rewarding business and cultural life. Nor is the emphasis on countries with a lower cost of living than our own so significant. By definition such countries provide an equal opportunity to set up businesses at lower costs than in Northern Europe.

The global figures are around 2.4 million individuals in the UK from other EU countries and 1.4 million Brits in the other countries. And that without any advocacy for emigration! It would be interesting if the opinion polls asked the equivalent question that is never asked: “Would you be in favour of being prevented from living and working in other EU countries?” (emphasis added) Why isn’t it asked? Is it not a relevant question in the debate? There is a key issue of reciprocity.

[2] the opinion poll evidence is, of course, significant, but it is not necessarily indicative of voting intention, nor, indeed, of an informed opinion. There has been hardly any rigorous effort to promote the benefits and reciprocal advantages of EU freedom of movement (or, I might add, of the huge broader benefits of the EU. Does anyone appreciate, for instance, that we have had the longest period of peace in Western Europe in human history?) My experience on the doorsteps of what we now label “white working class” electors is of a group struggling to survive, and keen to blame “immigrants” who are accused of a series of wholly erroneous actions. These are not refuted in any consistent way. On the other hand, I hear nothing but praise by local employers for the assiduity and work ethic of European immigrants.

Further, in the case of immigrants from outside the EU, I cannot recall a single case of an asylum seeker threatened with deportation who has not been forcefully defended by the local community. (We had an appalling case in Leeds where a man, very much involved in the local church community here, committed suicide in Harmondsworth, in front of his 13 year old son, in order that that son would be able to stay in the UK). In other words, the public oppose immigration in theory but not in practice when faced with its reality.

[3] I take the view of the splendid jurist, Patrick Devlin, who in his book The Enforcement of Morals asserted that the electorate did not, in fact, vote for its prejudices but for what it perceived as “right thinking views”. He therefore argued that it was vital for the politicians to treat the electorate as a giant jury - juries being quite remarkable in their rationality and rejection of prejudice - cf Clive Ponting, Randle and Pottle, and, for that matter, yesterday’s inquest jury in the Mark Duggan case. Just like the opinion polls on immigration, I have no doubt that opinion polls on slavery would, at the time, have produced similar percentages; but they are not determinant of what voters do in reality. The opinion polls still show huge majorities for bringing capital punishment back, but there is no actual pressure to do so - the Birmingham Seven, the Guildford Four, Stephen Kisko etc are overwhelming, quite apart from moral arguments - and we need to be very conscious of the “safety valve” nature of the polls.

[4] we need to look urgently and very sensitively at those areas of our cities which have been almost wholly “taken over” by immigrant groups. I am very disturbed to find that this has happened in at least one previously solid and vibrant working class area in South Leeds, which had its lively working men’s clubs which have now all closed, with the buildings up for sale. This has happened without great public angst though it will have caused immense misery and despair on the part of the previous community. Community buildings are now mosques. I have no problem with this presence but it cannot simply be ignored.

I am very much struck with the similarity with the Jewish communities in Leeds 130 years ago. Poor Jews came from the Russian empire, took over a neighbourhood, spoke an alien language (Yiddish) and established their own places of worship (Synagogues). Even though they were “white” they were identifiably Jewish and suffered as a consequence. Immense efforts were made by Jewish leaders and by the city to transform the situation. This was, over time, immensely effective and the Leeds Jewish community today  is a formidably successful and accepted part of the city.

I hope you have read thus far! If so, thank you for doing so. If I can help at all with the developing debates, do please let me know.


Michael Meadowcroft


  1. Michael Meadowcroft is right in his view that the debate is always one-sided and that the 'ghetto' effect needs careful handling. His historical analogy with the Jewish in Leeds is also shrewd.
    Powell's views on immigration were racist but this new 'influx' is not coloured and so must be handled differently if it does occur? One would hope that the Labour Party would show less prejudice and more tolerance in this debate but Labour appears frightened to alienate working class support rather than try to educate and enlighten. . . .

    1. ". . .frightened to alienate. . ." I'm afraid that's the case with our political parties today. You could call it the tyranny of the focus groups: "Tell us what your principles are and we'll adopt them." By contrast Mandela, at least according to the film which saw last night, after his release from prison faced the warring black factions and said bluntly that he was their leader, the violence must end and the argument would be settled via the ballot box. Cameron et al are more followers than leaders.