Last week, after a demonstration against the housing of refugees in a Knowsley hotel turned violent, many on the Left were quick to denounce the protestors as fascists or racists, and to lay the blame on Suella Braverman for warning of a migrant “invasion”. There were more protests across the UK at the weekend; no doubt a similar response will follow.

It is true that one nationalist group, Patriotic Alternative, promoted the Knowsley protest, and politicians who resort to inflammatory language to distract from their own failings deserve to be called out. But can these angry demonstrations really be blamed on a few bad apples, agitated by politicians and a generalised culture of racism? Or should they be seen as the symptom of a much deeper malaise, which has its roots in the impact of immigration on British working-class communities?

Uneasiness over immigration in the UK has been simmering below the surface for some time. Over the past few years, much has been written about the way in which anti-immigration attitudes among the British softened significantly after the EU referendum, despite the number of immigrants remaining broadly unchanged between 2016 and 2019. This left some baffled: it was the opposite of what they might have expected following the victory of a campaign which had been variously described as fuelled by racism, fascism and xenophobia. But in fact, it simply revealed the liberal elites’ ignorance of the real dynamics driving the Brexit vote.

Of course, the reason many people voted for Brexit was to lower immigration. There were both cultural and economic factors affecting this, the result of the very high and sustained immigration which took place under the Blair, Brown, and Cameron governments. However, it was also about sending a message to the country’s political establishment: citizens had been signalling their desire for stricter border controls at every election, only to be ignored. In this sense, immigration became the main focus of Brexit’s promise of greater popular sovereignty; not because of xenophobia or racism, but because it was where the political void between rulers and ruled had crystallised. It was mainly about accountability and democracy, not race or hatred of foreigners (which explains why the Leave vote had strong support among ethnic minorities as well).

This is why attitudes to immigration relaxed after the referendum: Leavers felt that they now had greater control over immigration. Or so they thought: since Brexit, the Conservatives have ushered in a system that, if anything, is even more liberal than before. As the University of Oxford’s Migration Observatory points out, while the new system is more restrictive for EU nationals, who previously enjoyed freedom of movement rights, for the rest of the world “the policy reflects a notable liberalisation”. And we are now beginning to see the effects of this.

According to Home Office figures, there were 2.6 million visas granted in the year ending September 2022. While this represents an 18% decrease compared with 2019, estimates from the Office of National Statistics suggest that total net migration was 504,000 in the year ending June 2022, far higher than the previous record of 330,000. Work-related visas in particular rose to almost 400,000 — 80% higher than before the pandemic in 2019, and the highest number of work visas issued in any 12-month period since the data series began in 2005. Meanwhile, as a result of Brexit, the source of immigration has also begun to change in profound ways: net EU immigration has fallen steadily since 2016, while non-EU immigration has increased — mainly from countries such as India (worker visas are up 90%), the Philippines (93%), Nigeria (399%) and Zimbabwe (1,500%). This means that immigration is becoming more culturally, ethnically and religiously distinctive.

On top of this, we have also witnessed a significant increase in the number of migrants and asylum-seekers entering the country illegally. More than 2,300 migrants have crossed the Channel on small boats so far this year, according to official figures; over 1,000 migrants arrived in the first two weeks of February alone. Overall, in 2022, a record 45,728 people arrived in the UK, almost 90% of whom were adult men — an astonishing 2,000% increase over pre-pandemic levels.

And crucially, a disproportionate number of asylum seekers are being housed in some of the poorest areas of the country, with local councils and residents having no say in the matter. North East and Red Wall areas are housing respectively 13 and 7 times as many asylum seekers as South East England. Knowsley itself is the second most deprived borough in England, suffering severe problems of unemployment, ill health and child poverty. All this is driving a renewed stiffening in attitudes towards immigration compared with the past few years.

So, perhaps it’s unsurprising that, according to the UnHerd Britain data released today, a majority of Britons think immigration is too high, with 34% strongly agreeing with the statement. Interestingly, the results are more or less the same across all socioeconomic groups, though as one might expect, opposition to immigration is particularly high in the country’s poorer areas: Midlands, Yorkshire and North East England.

What does this tell us about Britain? What is driving this change in attitudes to immigration? Are we to believe that 34% of the country is racist? There is very little evidence to support the claim that engrained xenophobia is to blame. Rather, the country has become incredibly more tolerant and less racist over the past decades. If one thing is clear, it’s that racism is definitely not on the rise. A 2019 EU survey ranked the UK as the least racist in the 12 Western European countries surveyed, while a recent poll showed that a majority of Britons believe that immigrants have had a positive effect in several areas, such as the NHS, the arts, and start-ups. This highlights the fact that one can be opposed to high immigration levels, while at the same time being positively predisposed towards immigrants. Hence past surveys have shown it isn’t just the majority of the white working class that wants to see immigration levels reduced, but the majority of respondents of non-white ethnicity (whether UK-born or not) as well.

Aside from the resentment over the clear betrayal of the Brexit mandate, could there be legitimate concerns about the impact of the recent wave of immigration, especially of the illegal kind, on local communities? More often than not, those who expose themselves to great personal risk to enter the country illegally are fleeing from horrendous situations: war, poverty and persecution. But this also means they are more likely to come from disproportionately lawless societies. It is not unreasonable, then, for people to be concerned by the sudden arrival into their communities of undocumented young males they know little about.

It is well-known, for example, that Albanian gangs are involved in very serious organised criminality in the UK, be it drug smuggling, human trafficking, or prostitution — and Albanians made up almost half of all boat arrivals in 2022. Then there’s the issue of the potential abuse of women: the protests in Knowsley, for instance, were sparked by a video circulated on social media appearing to show a young refugee aggressively propositioning a local 15-year-old girl for sex. We don’t yet know the veracity of the footage, but we do know that government and social services have historically ignored the abuse of thousands of white working-class girls by grooming gangs out of a fear of appearing racist. Justified or not, it’s not difficult to see why locals would express concern at the hint of any predatory behaviour going unchecked.

The usual progressive response is that much of the working-class resentment against immigration has to do with government mismanagement, with the growing material and existential precariousness of the working class, and with the erosion of communities caused by decades of neoliberal policies. This is certainly true. However, in this context of top-down class warfare, immigration, though not the main cause of the impoverishment and marginalisation of native workers, can easily become an exacerbating factor.

Not only is immigration used to drive down wages but, in a context of welfare retrenchment and austerity, it can cause increased competition over scarce and declining public resources and infrastructure. This is why, historically, trade unions and the Labour Party were generally anti-immigration. It also explains why, even among those favouring lower immigration overall, 76% favour more high-skilled immigration — which would make no sense if people were primarily concerned about stopping immigration altogether.

That said, opposition to immigration isn’t all about economics. It also has to do with the fact that the majority of voters, unlike the globe-trotting cosmopolitan elites, continue to view themselves as national citizens who want to live in a community with some sense of a shared collective identity. Indeed, several studies show that, for most people, national identity remains the strongest form of collective identity around the world. A country’s national identity may be, to a large extent, an “imaginary” construct. It may also be hard to pin down, encompassing customs, culture, history, language, religion and social mores. But it exists and has very “real” effects, creating common bonds among members of — and giving rise to — a territorially defined community.

To deny the existence of the latter is, in effect, to deny the existence of society itself. All that’s left is a bunch of individuals who happen to share a piece of land. Indeed, democracy, as the term implies, presupposes the existence of an underlying demos. The latter is also crucial in generating the affective ties and bonds of solidarity that are needed to sustain the welfare state. Leftists used to understand this. As the Marxist scholar Paul Hirst wrote in 2005: “Unregulated migration would undermine both citizenship and welfare rights. This would threaten democracy, which depends on the notion of a national community”. Contemporary progressives, on the other hand, like to vilify the nation-state as intrinsically fascistic. But modern concepts of national identity are still incredibly “progressive”, in the traditional sense of the word, based as they are on transcending individual particularities — sex, race, biology, religion — to create cultural-political identities rooted in participation, equality, citizenship and representation. Yet, crucially, this isn’t open-ended: a society is by definition demarcated by borders and a relatively stable membership. While national identity is constantly evolving, the pace of that change is everything.

And here we get to the crux of the matter: anxiety over immigration is not primarily driven by racism or xenophobia, or even by an opposition to immigration per se, but by a desire to have a say over the form, pace and scale of immigration. This is why studies have shown that the strongest Leave-voting areas had experienced the fastest increases in immigration, not the highest absolute numbers of arrivals. When the national community perceives the pace of change to be too fast, it naturally, instinctively reacts against the breakdown of social cohesion.

This is not an argument against immigration or the evolution of a country’s national identity. It is an argument for respecting a national community’s right to have a say in the pace and form that such evolution takes. We have an obligation to try to welcome as many people as possible who are escaping hellish situations — many of which happen to be caused by Western interventions. But it’s ultimately up to the people who live in the receiving country to decide how this should happen. It’s called democracy, and our politicians, as the weekend’s protests demonstrated, disregard it at their own peril.

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