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Britain and immigration

The Guardian published a fascinating thread of comments from readers in response to a column on immigration by Frank Field, MP. We posted a comment as well, which, as is ever true, could have used revision. Here is a slightly more thoughtful version.

Image: Association for Rescue at Sea

Britain is a bit like a rescue vessel – a limited number of people can be taken on board before the ship sinks. Of course people are always getting off – moving away or, more starkly, dying – which opens up room. To continue the metaphor (if you would oblige me) I would like to think that those who come on board, native-born or not, have some idea how to run a ship and keep it off the rocks. Everyone doesn't have to be expert or skilled, but enough people do or the ship will go down with all hands.

It is a plain fact that Britain cannot take on board everyone who wants to come. There is no point, really, in asserting, as some do, that this is payback time for British history and as a result everyone should be allowed to move to Britain. Good or bad, that is the past. The present fact is that Britain cannot take everyone on board, so the question is how many people can Britain take on board and who should they be?

The answer will be based on whether we care whether working class Brits are squeezed to an inch of their lives, whether we care about clean air and water, the livability of towns and cities (which huge numbers of people tend to depress), whether we want to protect the countryside and whether we care about British culture the way others care about Tibetan or French or Italian culture, understanding that a culture can be destroyed by the arrival of millions of people uninterested in it. Ah, there's the rub. Many, perhaps, do not love British culture because they have no idea how brave, imaginative, and generous Brits have been.

Setting aside the awesome question of love, Britain has a contract with its citizens. These citizens have paid their taxes, but they are not receiving what Britain promised them in health care, schooling for their children, pensions, safe streets or even clean air and water. That contract has to be met first.

I wonder whether non-governmental independent groups could expand their scientifically based studies into the effects of immigration on housing, wages, education, health care, crime, and the environment, and Brits could launch a national discussion on the results of the studies and Britain's opportunities for action. During this period, say three to five years, all legal immigration would be drastically reduced by 90%, and all illegal immigrants would be sent home. Brits would then have the opportunity to catch their collective breaths and assess the research.

They might discover, for instance, that in order to control the numbers of persons coming on board, they would have to join the Norwegians and Swiss who remain outside the EU while trading with Europe. Once Britain left the EU, she would no longer be forced to take millions of immigrants, and would no longer be ground down by senseless European regulations while sending to Brussels £ billions that Brits would prefer to spend making Britain shipshape. If so, all the better. There are many possible outcomes, including the perhaps unlikely one that Brits will decide the more the merrier.

Brits have a long history of figuring things out – gravity, MRIs, jet airplanes, rust-free wheat, antibiotics, sanitation, trains, computers, the worldwide web, affordable clothing, ending slavery. . . They can figure this out too and arrive at a decision that contains the imaginative, the idealistic and the practical in the right proportions.