In the past, the debate about immigration was between those who believed in liberty and equality and those who were concerned to preserve ‘British values’ and ‘traditions’. The British authorities, while allowing in a certain number of immigrants to help rebuild post-war Britain and compensate for labour shortages, were also at the forefront of scapegoating immigrant communities for many social and economic problems. For those concerned with migrant’s rights and anti-racist politics, the key demands were for the right of freedom of movement of labour and against immigration controls.
Over the past decade, however, there has been a shift in the way immigration is discussed. Immigration is now problematised, by both supporters and opponents alike, not so much in the threat posed by immigrants (although post-9/11 that’s taken on a new twist) as in the reaction they fear it may provoke in that most despised of communities – the native white working class.
Where once immigration was seen as a tool for economic regeneration, under the New Labour government immigration controls were relaxed (and subsequently new and stricter restrictions introduced) for primarily political reasons – to forge an image of a new multicultural Britain in opposition to traditional conservative notions of Britishness and to distance itself from, and discipline, the native working class population. Today, the immigration debate is dominated not by the traditional right-wing language of protecting Britain from ‘foreign hordes’, but in the seemingly radical belief of undermining the far right and controlling the worst instinsts of the ‘hordes at home’.
How do we account for these changes? What are the dangers in today’s debates about immigration and multiculturalism? And what heppened to the demand for freedom of movement?