Why the Little Englanders are wrong

The debate on asylum and immigration has become polarised. On one side, tabloid newspapers exploit popular fears, particularly among poor people, of being swamped by strangers who grab jobs and benefits, occupy scarce housing, hold to alien values and customs, and put further pressure on overstretched schools and hospitals. On the other, the head of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, dismisses even the concerns raised by David Goodhart, the cerebral and sober editor of Prospect, as those of a "liberal racist". This is foolish and unnecessary. Mr Goodhart has argued, in his own magazine and in the Guardian, that high immigration can conflict with the sense of sharing and solidarity which underpins the welfare state, and that too diverse a society can weaken support for the mutuality that is central to leftist values.

This is not a wicked argument. It just happens to be wrong. Mr Goodhart is not a racist, but a Little Englander living on a fantasy island of abstract concepts. His diversity and solidarity are so much waffle; his talk of reciprocity, obligation, community, citizenship, rights and duties just a clever man's way of missing the point. Prosperous countries such as Britain live off the backs of a new proletariat. Some toil in the sweatshops and farms of the developing world. Some come here legally, often to prop up public services that would collapse without them. Some enter illegally, usually to perform dirty, dangerous and menial jobs at rock-bottom wages. These people, wherever and however they work, provide us with cheap food, cheap clothes, cheap holidays, cheap nannying, cheap waiting at table, cheap cleaning - plus many of the profits that finance our pensions and life insurance schemes. We'd rather they stayed out of sight and worked for us from their homelands. But we'll have them here to provide personal services that can't be exported or to satisfy a craving for home-grown fruit or freshly baked bread. No matter what odd languages they speak or what alien customs they follow, we want their labour. Then we can get on with shuffling around the money they make, calling ourselves investment managers, analysts and the like. What we don't want is them or their compatriots making claims on us. We'll take the diversity every time if we can have our "little treasure" to mind the children. But to hell with the solidarity.

The image conjured up by the tabloid press - and implicitly endorsed by Mr Goodhart with his worries about whether we can possibly have "reciprocity" with these people - is of millions lured to Britain by the prospect of scrounging off welfare. So what if they are? They will soon get fed up with being on the margins of their new home and start a taxi firm or a plumbing business or go hop-picking in Kent. If they were specially lazy, they would have stayed at home. In reality, the welfare-seekers are far exceeded by the work-seekers. The welfare state does not draw them here; the buoyant economy does. As ministers occasionally point out, we should feel national pride that we are so attractive to migrants. Indeed, we once did: during the cold war, asylum-seekers were paraded as triumphs for our way of life.

Migration is in any case unstoppable. The latest government figures of falling asylum-seekers are likely to be as unreliable as police statistics for crime rates. The proposals to restrict the flow of migrants from the new members of the European Union are mere sops to tabloid opinion, casting David Blunkett in the role of King Canute. East Germany built a wall to keep its people in but couldn't stop them leaving, even at the risk of being shot. America has no welfare state to speak of, yet tens of thousands leak in through its border with Mexico every year, nearly all of whom find jobs of varying legality. If you're smart enough to stow away on a jet, boat, train or lorry, you'll be smart enough to evade detection and to find work when you get here. You may well be smart enough to start a new enterprise and create jobs for others. In time, perhaps, your child may become leader of the opposition.

There is no dilemma for the left. Raise the barriers as high as possible. Legalised migration leads to employment that can be regulated. The more migrants are out in the open, the more likely they are to demand the minimum wage, pay taxes, join trade unions and learn citizenship and all those other abstractions that Mr Goodhart so prizes. If we must have restrictions - possibly to ease burdens on the public services - sell off entry permits, thus undercutting the human-traffickers and strengthening the public finances. Illegal migration simply pushes newcomers to the margins of society, and well beyond the reach of any solidarity.

Don't split your sides

Here is a joke. "A Scotsman ran into the street to pick up a penny and was knocked down and killed by a lorry. The coroner returned a verdict of death by natural causes." Here is another joke, about the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. "Diana, Queen of Hearts? More like off with her head." If you think these can't be jokes because they're not funny, you are wrong. They are quoted as examples in The Right to Joke, just published by the Social Affairs Unit and written by Christie Davies, described as "Britain's leading academic expert on jokes". If you haven't heard them before, it is because, according to Professor Davies, they have been censored by the media, which is in thrall to the political correctness of "liberal egalitarianism". If you don't find them funny, you are wielding "hegemonic cultural power" and trying to suppress "a true expression of independent popular culture". Honest. This is no laughing matter.