Migrants are helped ashore from a RNLI lifeboat at a beach in Dungeness, on the south-east coast of England, on November 24, 2021. Pictured Credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

Why won’t liberals tell the truth about immigration?

The British left want open borders — but won’t admit it

Artillery Row

In our corner of Kent, less than three miles from the sea, HM Coastguard helicopters are not an unusual sight. Especially in the spring and summer, we see them regularly, the distinctive red and white pattern standing out strongly against the blue sky as they head out to sea on their errands of mercy.

As with ambulances, one cannot help wondering which particular emergency they are attending this time. Given our proximity to Dover, and to the long flat beaches stretching south to Dungeness Point, it is not unlikely that they are part of efforts to ensure the safety of small migrant boats crossing the Channel from the French coast.

Most people on the liberal left are functionally pro-open borders

As recently as 2018, the boats were not a significant problem. Official figures record that 299 people were detected arriving on small boats. But by 2021, that many people were arriving every four days on average, with an annual total of 28,526. Since the start of this year over 6,000 people have crossed the Channel in small boats, a fourfold increase on the same period last year, with the peak crossing months of spring and summer still to come, suggesting that the total for 2022 will far exceed that for 2021.

This fast-growing problem is the background to the Tories’ new plan to resettle those who enter the country illegally in Rwanda. The scheme has proved controversial, to say the least, earning the government a rebuke from the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Easter Sunday sermon. 

I don’t particularly want to wade into the debate over the Rwanda scheme itself. It is noteworthy, however, how hard it is to have a good faith discussion of the Channel crisis, and indeed of immigration more broadly.

One of the government’s defensive lines, employed by both the Prime Minister and Priti Patel, has been to ask what their critics would do instead. This is an effective riposte, because it cuts to the heart of liberal Britain’s dishonest equivocation about the maintenance of borders. The fact is that most people on the liberal left are functionally pro-open borders. 

The word “functionally” is important here, because most of the kind of people I am talking about, if asked, would deny that they oppose border controls entirely. But here’s the rub: if you ask them to articulate a limiting principle to their immigration liberalism, they will find it very hard to do so. If you doubt this, think about the questions that are barely ever clearly addressed in detail by pro-immigration voices.

Numbers were bound to grow in the absence of preventive action 

What should be the maximum number of people permitted to settle in the UK each year? Should we be concerned that it is increasingly difficult to deport those with no right to be here, and indeed foreign criminals (in the year to September 2021, the Home Office only managed 2,380 deportations, down from over 20,000 in 2004)? What is an acceptable level of exogenous population growth at a time when there is an acute and worsening housing crisis? Should we worry at all about the cultural and social effects of ongoing rapid demographic change? Are there particular kinds of immigrants that we need more than others?

Different people, reflecting carefully on the inevitable trade-offs of politics, will inevitably come up with different answers to these complex questions. And for immigration liberals, that is the problem. To accept the legitimacy of such reflection transforms the immigration debate into a normal political discussion, where costs and benefits are weighed and priorities considered, rather than an arena for haughty moralising.

Such moralising is easy and high-status in the circles in which educated Britons tend to move. All the same, it does not actually solve anything, especially when applied to the Channel crisis. Many immigration enthusiasts don’t even accept that the boats constitute a crisis. In summer 2020, David Aaronovitch tweeted that “a few thousand migrants coming here on little boats” was “not a big problem”. Admittedly the totals were lower then; nevertheless, it did not require much talent for prognostication to see that numbers were bound to grow in the absence of preventive action. 

Even as things stand, I have had people say to me that they aren’t really bothered by the crossings, that a few tens of thousands is a drop in the ocean for a total British population in excess of 65 million. This is perhaps a reasonable point of view to hold, although the costs of housing and feeding those individuals are not small — but again, we do not hear what the upper limit might be. When should we start caring? Answer comes there none.

The costs of the Rwanda programme have been heavily criticised. Once more, however, there is an element of bad faith in operation here. The government’s intention is clearly that removing illegal arrivals to Rwanda will have a sufficient deterrent effect that the numbers attempting the crossing will fall, and so the future costs will be significantly less. 

It is also the case that the costs are not that high by comparison with the social, cultural and financial costs of accepting tens of thousands of young men — and the Channel migrants are overwhelmingly male — entering the country illegally, in perpetuity. Needless to say, this aspect is simply not engaged with in most negative commentary on the government’s plan. Nor do critics seem to mind the injustice involved in letting asylum seekers who break the law skip the queue at the expense of those who follow the rules. 

The tragedy of all this obfuscation and avoidance is that it makes it more difficult to find solutions. Even on immigration liberals’ own terms, they need to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation in the Channel before they can persuade people that they have a better solution than the government — if indeed they do have one that amounts to more than clichés about “more legal routes” and more co-operation with the French. We do not have a government of immigration restrictionists or fiery nativists — the number of non-EU visas granted is at an all-time high following Brexit — and a debate that pretends we have is useless and pointless.

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