Immigration is the one issue where we really do get the politicians we deserve. Photo: Getty
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Politicians will never please the public on immigration, so they should stop trying

On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. 

There is one hot political topic where the two most honest politicians also happen to be the politicians we despise the most. Indeed, we regularly say we value frankness from our elected representatives yet if this issue is anything to go by we actually respond to something quite different: an emotional pandering to our most illogical prejudices. 
 
The topic in question is immigration, an issue we are supposedly "not allowed to talk about" but which almost every week results in some cheap and counterproductive initiative flowing from the mouth of a politician. Yesterday it was Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves talking about restricting benefits for migrants until they’ve worked. Last week it was David Cameron talking about the supposed "magnetic pull" of the British benefits system. Next month we’ll probably hear of a fresh "get tough" announcement depriving immigrants of some other "entitlement" they rarely use.   
 
It should be obvious as to why politicians like to blow the infamous dog-whistle on immigration and drip-feed the press an endless stream of announcements on "restrictions" and "crack downs". In almost every opinion poll immigration is near to the top in terms of issues the public say they are concerned about. And when they say "concerned" they invariably mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain. According to a poll from January of this year, three quarters of Britons wanted a reduction in the level of immigration, with 56 per cent calling for a big fall in the number of people allowed into the country.  
 
Considering that a majority of recent immigrants are from other countries in the European Union, there are two things that any honest politician can take from this: either Britain must pull out of Europe right away or we must accept the free movement of people and get on with it. All talk by David Cameron of reforming the EU to allow Britain to opt out of free movement is hogwash – however much the Daily Mail thunders the rest of Europe won’t stand for it. We can therefore either cling to the sepia-tinged illusion that Britain can live (and live well) without immigration or we can accept immigration as a fact of life and grapple with the really important issues like integration.  
 
There are only two politicians willing to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Nick Clegg, the consummate pro-European, has (in the past at least) been unafraid to point out that immigration is good for Britain. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who wants to take Britain out of Europe entirely, says (again truthfully) that you cannot significantly reduce immigration unless Britain leaves the European Union. Both, in their different ways, are correct. And yet their reward for the honesty we say we so badly want is to be the most despised politicians in the country – albeit for quite different reasons. 
 
Indeed, for all we claim to hate the political class for their dishonesty, immigration is the one issue where we are quite comfortable with being lied to. We know very well that migrants pay in to the exchequer more than they take out; and yet still we demand that politicians "crack down" on the mythical concept of "benefit tourism" (there was no evidence of widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals, according to a report last year by the European Commission). We know that Britons are more likely (two-and-a-half times more likely) to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals, but still we buy into racist tabloid stereotypes about opportunistic foreigners ready to steal the shirt off our collective back. We cite free movement as our favourite thing about the EU, yet we grumble into our newspaper when a citizen of another country actually decides to exercise that right. 
 
This probably explains why, while we say we want a large reduction in immigration, we oppose the only sure method of actually bringing it about – leaving the EU.
 
It’s a cliché to say that we get the politicians we deserve, but immigration is the one issue where we really do. We want the European Union and the fiscal benefits of immigration but without any of the perceived drawbacks. We want the minimum wage cleaners, the nannies and the glass collectors but without the sound of the foreign voices on the daily commute. We say we don’t want migrants coming here to "steal our jobs" but we do nothing about it because, deep down, we know they are coming to Britain and paying for our pensions.
 
The next time you hear David Cameron or Ed Miliband making unkeepable promises about immigration, or pledging to "listen to genuine concerns" (whatever that entails) bear in mind that they are only doing what most people seemingly want them to do: using macho rhetoric that signifies nothing. On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. We want immigration but without the immigrants. Try and triangulate your way out of that one.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot ForwardHe tweets @J_Bloodworth.

 

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage