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“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood . . . ”
Enoch Powell’s warning about the danger of mass immigration into Britain was made in 1968. Those who regard the late Tory politician as a prophet will be feeling vindicated right now. A backlash against immigration is increasingly central to western politics.
The past weekend saw demonstrations across Germany against the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is riding high in the polls — and is accused of considering the mass deportation of migrants. In the US, Donald Trump has said that illegal migrants are “poisoning the blood” of the nation. The British government is obsessed by its faltering plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
So perhaps Powell’s foreboding is being borne out — more than 50 years after his “river of blood” speech?
Or perhaps not. There are two major flaws in the idea that mass immigration was a mistake that is now ripping western society apart.
First, the idea that ethnic homogeneity used to guarantee social peace in the west is obvious nonsense. Second, the social and economic costs of severely curtailing immigration would be enormous. Many of the people who now complain about “too many immigrants” would be outraged by the costs of having too few.
This is not to say that mass immigration does not create tensions and problems. Almost any big social change is bound to do that. Tensions around immigration in Europe often rise sharply after terrorist incidents — such as the attacks in France in 2015 that were carried out by Islamist extremists.
But the idea that a western world without migrants would be living in perfect harmony is a historical absurdity. When I grew up in the UK in the 1970s, terrorism was a major threat. But the bombs were being planted by white guys from Northern Ireland. European history before mass immigration is replete with bloodletting and turmoil. England, France, Russia and Spain fought savage civil wars long before the age of mass immigration. So much for those halcyon days of social peace.
Some in the west now cast envious eyes towards countries, such as Japan and South Korea, which take a much more restrictive attitude to immigration and are much more ethnically homogenous as a result. But that has not spared them from political violence. Shinzo Abe, the former Japanese prime minister, was assassinated in 2022. The leader of South Korea’s main opposition party was stabbed a couple of weeks ago. And all South Koreans live under the shadow of the nuclear threat from their ethnic brothers in North Korea.
Japan and South Korea also have to contend with some of the lowest birth rates in the world. Without immigration to compensate, their populations are shrinking and ageing rapidly — which will create enormous economic and social strains.
Anti-immigration politicians often say that the answer to low birth rates is more babies, rather than more immigrants. But pronatalist policies have a very poor record of success.
Opponents of mass immigration say that it too imposes heavy economic and social costs. Matthew Goodwin, a British academic and anti-immigration activist, argues: “Close to half of all social housing in London goes to households that are headed by somebody who was not born in Britain. I don’t think that’s a sustainable situation.”
But this is hardly surprising since 41 per cent of Londoners were born overseas. If you include people like me, whose parents were born overseas, the number of Londoners with a “migration background” (as the German call it) is far higher.
And yet London is easily the most prosperous and dynamic city in Britain. It is doing so much better than the rest of the country, that “levelling up” the rest of the UK to match London’s living standards and productivity has become a central goal of the British government. London schools, packed with new migrants, are also outperforming those in the rest of the country.
Could it be that high levels of immigration are actually a large part of the London success story? Take the migrants out of London and the city would stop functioning. The other day, I had my hair cut by a Syrian barber, then travelled to a doctor’s appointment in an Uber driven by a Nigerian. At the hospital I had a scan — carried out by two Spaniards — before going in to see my Delhi-trained specialist.
Britain’s much-prized NHS would, in fact, collapse without the contribution of immigrants. Some 35 per cent of the doctors working in the NHS are overseas nationals. If you count those who arrived from abroad and have taken UK citizenship, the figure will be much higher. Just as there are said to be no atheists in a foxhole, I doubt there are many racists in intensive care.
Of course, debating levels of immigration is completely legitimate in a democracy. Illegal border crossings also pose a particular problem because they suggest the rule of law is breaking down. But in both the UK and the US, the great majority of immigrants have arrived legally.
Rightwingers often say that politicians should dare to tell the truth about immigration. I agree. The truth is that high levels of immigration are a sign of a dynamic and healthy society — not a harbinger of doom or “rivers of blood”.