With the New Year fireworks marking the end of visa restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian workers migrating to the UK, the Oxford Union kicked off Hilary Term with a lively and controversial debate discussing the motion: “This house believes post-war Britain has seen too much immigration.”
The result? A resounding no.
Both sides seemed keen to laud the many benefits immigrants from around the world had brought with them over the decades – and it was the proposition’s failure to adequately draw the line between the current need for immigration controls and the concept of whether past immigration had been “too much” that proved costly.
Zachary Spiro of Oriel College opened their case, claiming that migrants have driven down the national minimum wage and increased social disparity in the UK, with most settling in the major financial centres in London and the South East. He argued that through bringing their consuming power and building homes, businesses and families, immigration has “significantly exacerbated the North-South divide.”
The first opposition speaker, Lord Indarjit Singh of Wimbledon CBE, was keen to correct him, giving Bradford as just one other example of a major migrant destination.
Citing a UCL study which found that immigrants are less likely than indigenous people to claim benefits, he praised their entrepreneurial ideas, varying from the late-night corner shops introduced by South Indians to the building skills brought by Eastern Europeans.
Singh, a prominent active of the interfaith movement, did acknowledge the need for tighter border controls, describing immigration as “a bit like ice cream – great in digestible quantities.”
This was an idea that both sides were eager to agree upon.
Proposition member and independent MEP Godfrey Bloom also admired the diverse range of skills imported through immigrantion, but argued that the current excessive levels of youth unemployment mean that Britain’s Open Door Policy is “a recipe for disaster”. Bloom, who last year proved “too hot for UKIP to handle” after his allegedly sexist comments resulted in him being suspended from the party, added that in recent decades, Britain has become one of the “most crowded pieces of real estate on the planet. We are just full.”
Bloom proved as controversial as ever, making headlines earlier this week by demanding of opposing floor speaker, David Browne, who suffers from a disability, “Are you Richard III?”
He also addressed Monica Ali, prizewinning author and the sole female speaker, as “sweetheart”.
Opposition member, Nadhim Zahawi, encouraged the house to see the motion in a different light, questioning whether it was ethical for Britain to “poach” the brightest and most skilled workers and students from across the globe to fuel our own economy. However, he demonstrated that the benefits of immigration work both ways, with the remits sent back home by diaspora being a major source of income for third world countries.
His fellow speaker, Ali, supported this notion, adding that the remits of immigrants were three times larger than the global aid budget.
Zahawi, a Conservative MP, argued that immigrants are not a drain on public finances but rather are net contributors to the UK economy. “It does not matter whether someone comes,” he asserted, “but whether they share our values”.
This was a theme which was continued during the floor speeches, with debaters struggling to decide whether the assimilation of different cultures could be reconciled with British values or if it would inevitably lead to conflict.
“There is a spark,” said one opposition speaker. “And it’s the spark of debate, it’s the spark of information, and it’s the spark of an exciting multi-cultural society that we can all benefit from.”
The Spectator columnist Douglas Murray, closing for the proposition, disagreed; he claimed that the mass migration seen under the recent Labour governments demanded that we “water down” our definitions of what we are.
He was keen to stress the complete political unanimity about the need for stricter controls, arguing that immigrants cannot continually support the welfare state, as they too grow old and claim their benefits.
Ali disputed this, arguing that most financial institutions still welcome immigrants as valuable contributors to the public purse.
She ended the debate by drawing the house’s attention back to the motion – if immigration, and there are too many immigrants, then “What should be done about it? Send them back?”