Last week The Guardian reported that the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, László Andor, cautioned David Cameron about stigmatizing immigrants from other European countries as taking excessive and gratuitous advantage of British public services (Guardian, 25 March 2013). In an article in the right-wing Sun newspaper on the same day, the Prime Minister wrote, “Sun readers know that immigration got out of control under Labour”.
The anti-immigrant statements of the Prime Minister follow on from the recent strong electoral performance of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which has positioned itself well to the right of the Conservatives (leaving it very far to the Right, indeed). The inflammatory and irresponsible polemics by the Prime Minister are all the more dangerous because of a clear increase in such prejudice in the public. My cottage in rural Hampshire is positioned in the heartland of troglodyte Tory-ism, and I frequently encounter assertions that Romanians,Poles,etc. are responsible for local unemployment, housing shortages and any other social malady that strikes the speaker.
Commissioner Andor and many others have pointed to the benefits that immigrants bring to the United Kingdom (and almost every country), but such arguments fall on deaf ears, and not just among UKIP supporters. Immigrant-bashing occurs in most countries at most times, but over the last few years in Britain its receptive audience has grown substantially.
It appears that this increase in anti-immigrant xenophobia cannot be explained by increases in immigration itself, as the chart below indicates. By definition we have no reliable information on unmeasured immigration (“illegal”), but the statistics available suggest that numbers declined in the second half of the 2000’s. This seems consistent with rising unemployment in the United Kingdom, implying fewer job opportunities.
Net inflow of legally entering immigrants to the United Kingdom, 2000-2010 (thousands)
Yet surveys of opinion in Britain indicate a substantial increase in the number of people who consider immigration a “problem”, to a level higher than for other large EU countries. The reasons for popular concern about immigration are not hard to identify. For example, a frequent complaint is that immigrants take away jobs from British citizens and this drives wages down.
The chart below measures the unemployment rate compared to its minimum value during 2000-2012, and average weekly real earnings relatively to its value of the same time (the third quarter of 2004 when unemployment was 4.6 percent). By the end of the decade the unemployment rate was up to eight percent. Average earnings, after rising continuously until the first quarter of 2008, at the end of 2012 were below their level of eight years before.
To put the matter simply, when a recession hits, job opportunities disappear and wages fall. Suddenly, the economic reality shifts from “more than enough for all” to “not enough to go around”. When this shift occurs xenophobia latent in society asserts itself, especially if leaders give it legitimacy. This government attempt to blame immigrants for the economic woes of the vast majority in Britain borders on the venal. It is the government itself that through its fiscal policy perpetuates the unemployment and falling incomes that lend credibility to the xenophobia.
United Kingdom unemployment and average private weekly earnings, compared to mid-2004, 2000-2012
Note: Unemployment is measured as the percentage point difference from the 3rd quarter of 2004, and average real earnings as the percent difference from that quarter.
Source: UK Office of National Statistics (wages) and OECD (unemployment)
Another frequent complaint about immigrants is that they compete with citizens for scarce housing. This often goes along with anecdotal tales of immigrants enjoying priority over citizens in access to public housing. It is quite likely that such competition is reality, but the xenophobic prejudices identify the wrong cause. Were every migrant expelled, the majority of Britons would suffer from shortages of housing, manifested in long waiting lists and high prices. This is because of a disastrous decline in publicly funded housing construction since 2007 (see chart below).
During the last eighteen months of the Brown government publicly funded housing construction began a recovery, which the coalition government quickly terminated. By the end of 2012 public housing expenditure stagnated a full thirty percent below its value in the third quarter of 2004. Even privately funded housing, most of which is for families well above median income, stagnated. At the end of 2012 it was lower than eight years before.
We should not be surprised that accusing immigrants of taking housing from UK citizens gains credibility among the public when neither the public nor the private sector constructs much new housing. Population increases, existing houses deteriorates, and the government reduces residential construction. The issue is not immigration, but government policy.
Public and Private expenditure on housing construction, constant prices, 2000-2012 (relatively to 3rd quarter of 2004, percentages)
Note: Measured as percentage difference from 3rd quarter of 2004.
Source: UK Office of National Statistics
In the United Kingdom immigration is not out of control. The government is out of control of the voters than brought it into office. In pursuit of legitimization of its reactionary assault on social provision, and the public sector in general, the government transfers blame from itself with xenophobic polemics. Whether recent immigrants make a net contribution to the United Kingdom pales compared to the question of whether the current government’s social balance is positive or negative. The answer is, overwhelmingly negative.