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How Britain could change course on mass migration

Imagining a positive respectability cascade

Artillery Row

In Ed West’s recent article “Europe’s turn to the Right”, he mentions Scott Alexander’s concept of “respectability cascades” as a reason why opposition to immigration is popular but restricted. Many are reluctant to endorse the position in public because of its association with disreputable people, which means that open supporters are skewed towards those who are already disreputable. This causes a feedback loop of disreputableness which keeps it out of the Overton window, however much private support it may have.

As is well known to anyone with a cursory knowledge of public opinion polling in Britain, the population has always wanted less immigration: even with the more accepting attitudes of recent years, 52 per cent still want immigration levels decreased (most of these by a lot), compared to 22 per cent who want it to stay the same and 14 per cent who want it to increase. If democracy actually meant “the people getting their policy preferences enacted”, mass immigration would never have happened. However, as is also well known to anyone with an interest in this issue, public opinion has little effect on policy in practice, especially on the issue of immigration where the numbers have been very high for over 20 years and are only getting higher. Whilst immigration restriction is the prevailing opinion amongst the population at large, the prevailing opinion amongst the elite and governing class, who can actually influence policy, is that immigration as such is inherently a good thing — or at least that any attempts to restrict it are immoral or ill-advised. It is also within this class, rather than the population in general, where the taboo against supporting immigration restriction is the strongest and where this negative respectability cascade has the most restrictive effect.

The forces determining immigration policy

A description is in order of the balance of forces amongst the governing class that actually determine immigration policy and its implementation. First of course is the elected government, which is split on the issue, and which also has less power over it than a naive view of how democracies work would suggest. Until her recent firing Suella Braverman represented the restrictionist side, whilst Rishi Sunak and the official line of the government as a whole is restrictionist on illegal but open on legal immigration. Suella’s replacement James Cleverly is somewhat unconvincingly still said to be “committed to stopping the boats”.

Universities have become dependent on foreign students to pay the bills

Unlike some, I do not believe Suella’s public pronouncements on the issue were entirely cynical, though I do think they were not very productive. Nor do I think that Rishi Sunak does not really want to stop the boats, but the Tories are a coalition of interest and ideological groups. Whilst Rishi may want to do this, he wants to stay leader of the Tory party even more. There are large centrist and liberal factions within the Tories, e.g. the One Nation Conservatives and the Tory Reform Group (TRG), which contain over 100 MPs or around a third of the parliamentary party. The TRG issued a recent statement that “the UK must under no circumstances consider leaving the ECHR nor derogate from the human rights it underpins for the sake of the Rwanda policy”. These factions are balanced to some extent by ones such as the New Conservatives, who issued a call for lower migration earlier this year, and by the Common Sense Group. It is clear that, like the cabinet, the parliamentary party is split. Serious moves to tackle illegal immigration, e.g. by leaving the ECHR, would put Sunak’s authority at risk.

The government and governing party are split to some extent, but of all the forces that can meaningfully influence immigration policy, they are the only ones that even contain a significant restrictionist faction at all. Human Rights legislation is fully embedded within the legal system, and it has been developed to such an absurd degree that it becomes very difficult to remove anyone to their home country where they might suffer the risk of mistreatment (i.e., much of the planet). When the government does manage to pass any immigration-restrictionist legislation, it is endlessly frustrated by the courts, as we are now seeing with the Rwanda plan. Much of this legislation might lie “unactivated” if it were not for “charities”, funded mostly by large grantmaking institutions and partly by the state itself, which constantly use lawfare to push for ever more open asylum policies. Then there are the business lobbies who can throw their support behind different party factions or different parties entirely if their demands for higher immigration are not met. Short-termist Treasury orthodoxy is resolutely pro-immigration, and universities have become dependent on foreign students to pay the bills in an exchange which often amounts to little more than cash for visas. More hazily, all these forces exist within a general elite cosmopolitan liberal moral framework and window of acceptable opinion. Even when not explicitly pro mass-immigration, it regards any attempt to restrict immigration as anathema.

Positive respectability cascades and preference falsification

Any meaningful change to immigration policy could only happen either from a replacement of this governing class, or from a shift in the centre of gravity of existing elite opinion. It is the latter possibility I will be exploring here. Ed West uses the concept of “respectability cascade” in the negative sense, but respectability cascades can happen in a positive direction too, where a disreputable position starts out being held only by those on the margins, then slowly attracts braver members of a more respectable type. The process accelerates as the position comes to be seen as more and more respectable and therefore is taken up by more and more people. The final stage is when the opinion comes to be “common sense”, and then its opponents are instead cast as disreputable.

These “positive” respectability cascades can happen fast, especially in situations of widespread preference falsification, a situation where many people privately hold views counter to the officially respectable one. They keep quiet about it or espouse the officially respectable view for fear of social consequences, and because they are unaware how commonly shared their private views are. Once things start to shift and it starts to become acceptable to hold a different view, change can accelerate rapidly. See for example the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe as detailed by Timur Kuran, the inventor of the preference falsification concept, in his book Private Truths, Public Lies.

Signs of change

There are various contemporary trends which could augur a spreading of scepticism about our current immigration model amongst British elites. One is the change in attitude to indiscriminate mass immigration in countries they traditionally admire — Scandinavia, say, and Germany, which were until recently Europe’s staunchest advocates of unselective immigration. In Sweden we seem to be seeing a positive respectability cascade playing out right now. Until the late 2010s, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were treated as beyond the pale by mainstream parties, despite their steadily growing support. In the same period, the evidence was piling up against Sweden’s immigration policies, best represented by the infamous “grenade attack” phenomenon. By 2022, however, the Sweden Democrats were in a coalition government with the centre-right, and earlier this year it was reported that “The Swedish Migration Board has been tasked with reviewing how to increase voluntary return migration”. In Denmark the respectability cascade has already happened, with the centre left Social Democrats maintaining policies designed to eradicate “parallel societies” and toughening deportation laws. Even the Germany of Wir schaffen das is now exploring a Rwanda-plan style policy.

Centrist liberal Brits on holiday in 2030 will not enjoy being quizzed by the Swedes

Britain’s international reputation is very important to liberal centrists, or at least their own often skewed perception of it is. Their patriotic feelings, at least outwardly, are of the “missionary nationalism” sort, i.e. that Britain achieves its identity and status from fulfilling a universalist liberal and human rights-based ideology. This is why they felt such pride at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony and such shame at Brexit: it was about what their (often imagined) international peers would think. If the norm of immigration policy in Europe moves to the right and leaves Britain seeming to liberal European opinion “barmy and suicidal” as it did after Brexit, this will affect British liberal opinion, too. Centrist liberal Brits on holiday in 2030 will not enjoy being quizzed by the Swedes sharing their Tuscan villa complex why Britain has not started sorting out its problems with unintegrated minorities as Sweden began to do earlier in the previous decade. “Even the Swedes are doing it” will give them acceptable cover to change their own minds. Whilst it is always possible that in the future a new “liberal Britain vs bigoted continentals” narrative might emerge amongst British liberal centrists, it will be harder for them to go against the prevailing wind than it would be when it was all blowing in one direction.

Another contemporary sign especially visible at the time of writing is the belated realisation by some liberal centrists that mass immigration might not have been the best idea for maintaining the safety of Jews and warm feelings towards Israel in Western countries. I personally regard anyone who professes to be shocked and appalled by the pro-Hamas sentiment on Britain’s streets, whilst also being a staunch advocate of multiculturalism, as somewhat ridiculous. You have to take your wins and your potential coalition partners in any new approach to immigration where you can find them, though. Those with an existing political identity to preserve, as seen in the link above, are unlikely to publicly shift their views, but there is likely to be some reflection amongst many of those without a column in The Times to maintain.

A third sign is the growing realisation in Britain that the “global Britain” model we have pursued since New Labour, in which mass immigration is an integral part, has not delivered the economic dynamism we were promised. Instead it has coincided with a historic stagnation in growth and living standards. In the 2000s and 2010s British liberals could look on their country, London especially, as radiantly exemplifying the new world of globalisation. A large part of this was paid for by a one-off sale of Britain’s heritage, both tangible and intangible, to the global market. Britain’s place in the world of 2023 is a world away from that of 2003, when Britain’s economy was still bigger than China’s; Eastern Europe was still in its post communist pre-EU phase; and the role of the gulf countries, especially Dubai, as an alternative model of illiberal mass immigration and globalisation was still nascent. Viable non-liberal visions of successful prosperous societies had not yet arrived, but they have very much arrived in 2023. The British one is now far less shiny in comparison.

The early 21st century packaging of Britain abroad was a balancing act that combined the Oxbridge / Harry Potter / Richard Curtis vision with the new Britpopper / global / multicultural one into a successful brand. The first half of this relied on a specific heritage that the universalism of the second half has made it impossible to sustain, however. Even in its day Notting Hill did not represent the reality of the area, but these days Richard Curtis would not be able to make the film at all. Despite the multicultural visions of London liberals, most foreigners do not come to London for its cosmopolitanism, but for a Harry Potter vision of Britishness which is built upon a diminishing past. The more this past recedes, the more the balancing act becomes unstable, and the less mass immigration Britain looks like the future that the rest of the world aspires to.

How would a respectability cascade look?

I am not arguing that a majority of the elites are falsifying their preferences, but considering the strong social pressures in favour of being uncritically pro mass immigration, coupled with its increasingly obvious costs, many of them are. Many people reading this will have had conversations with people who privately admit their reservations about our current mass immigration model, but will not go further than a private confession because it does not accord with their broader worldview or social identity.

Sensible pocketbook voters wonder about Britain’s continued economic stagnation

Nevertheless, people notice things, even if they repress them to themselves and are hesitant about mentioning them to others. There are sensible pocketbook voters who wonder about Britain’s continued economic stagnation in the midst of unprecedented immigration levels. There are BBC news viewers who wonder why the channel boat “refugees” are nearly all young men. There are those who see, in visits to towns that were once familiar to them and in images of poppy sellers crowded out by protestors, that their concept of what Britain is is dissolving. There are middle aged couples whose children are paying over £1,000 a month for a small living room used as a bedroom in a London ex-council flat owned by a Chinese property investor. There are Londoners who sometimes wonder on their commutes why all the Big Issue sellers are coordinated Roma women who are not actually homeless. Even the Lib Dem voting NIMBYs may dimly be aware of immigration being a driver of new houses being built in their backyard.

As has been described effectively elsewhere, elite opinion on immigration as an abstract “good thing” is much more ideological, and less reality based, than those who justify it in terms of common sense, economic necessity or world-historical inevitability claim that it is. Our current way of doing things is in no way inevitable; there are many other models around the world that offer very diverse examples of how to do things differently, from Denmark to Australia, to South Korea, Israel, Singapore or Dubai.

Suella had a tendency to play the pantomime villain whilst achieving little. There was perhaps little she could do within the constraints she was in, but deporting people to Rwanda was never going to be the stuff of voters’ dreams, even for those who support the policy. Whilst there should certainly be no objection to leaving the ECHR, there is no real reason why we should have to in order to have a sensible immigration policy: it has no enforcement mechanism beyond “not a good look”, and Denmark, Poland and Hungary manage to do what we cannot whilst still being parties to the convention. A more sensible immigration policy requires heavy restriction, much more selection, and a more rigid distinction between temporary and permanent migration compared to what we have now, something like the New Conservatives plan to cut migration as a start. “Tough but necessary” policies would ideally be quietly and competently enacted, with a positive vision emphasised of the high-skilled, high human capital, orderly, relatively harmonious society we want to build. Immigration selectivity and restriction is the sensible, intelligent and high status opinion, and it could be the respectable one, too. It sees through the midwittery, parochialism, fuzzy thinking and outdatedness of millennial liberalism and actually comprehends how human capital, ethnic relations, and productive, cohesive societies really work.

Britain has unwisely tried a nonselective mass immigration policy for 25 years, and it hasn’t led to this better society. It’s time for something new. This is the angle that your secretly immigration-sceptic centrist liberal is most likely to get behind, even if reluctantly, and it’s the right one, too. I have visions of headlines in The Times: “The Human Rights Act was well-intentioned, but it must be reformed” or “Immigration has brought positives, but it’s time to change course”. It’s just respectable, common sense.

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