Immigration and British Citizens by Jean Calder


I’ve been interested to read responses to one of my recent blogs, Labour Fails to Listen. 

In his comment, Jim Grozier disagreed with what I’d said about immigration. He wrote: “I have a major problem with one paragraph, and one phrase in particular – “the rights of British people” – sent a shiver down my spine.” He added “Surely the only rights British people have are *human* rights – the same rights that the immigrants have – so why should British people be favoured over non-British people?”

I find these ideas fascinating. I am an immigrant. I remain immensely grateful to the UK for taking me in in 1972 and for providing me with a better and safer life than I would have had in South Africa. I’ve worked hard since I’ve been here and, like most immigrants,  have tried to give something back. However, back in the 1970s I never for one moment thought I had a right to the same services and benefits as British-born people. It simply would never have occurred to me, given that neither my parents nor I had contributed, by our work or our taxes.  

I worked for three years in order to gain what was then called ‘resident status’ and then went to Sussex University as a mature student on a full grant. I will always be grateful for this. However, if the government of the time had decided that immigrants like me needed to work for  five or seven years rather than three, because British born people needed the places or because the country couldn’t afford it, I would have accepted it. I wouldn’t have liked it, but it would have seemed to me fair and completely reasonable that the country should look after its own young people first. I’ve never had any difficulty with this notion, though I would expect that after a certain period of legal residence and contribution, rights would equalise.

It seems strange to suggest that British citizenship should bring with it no rights other than basic human rights. As Britons, we don’t live in a supranational European state or a world without borders. The nation state still exists and so long as it does, continues to confer particular rights and responsibilities on its citizens. This is true in all countries, not just our own. It seems to me absurd to suggest that national governments should, in all circumstances, give equal weight to the well being of visitors or settlers, whatever the hardship this may cause to the people of the host nation. 

Tony Greenstein commented that apparent concern about immigrants’ undercutting wages “has been the staple argument of racists for over 120 years.” He is right, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t in some cases true. My point is that, over several years, an unscrupulous political elite in the UK developed a deliberate strategy of bringing in workers for the purpose of undercutting wages and conditions and undermining unionised labour. Unskilled jobs which could have been carried out by British people were, quite legally, advertised abroad rather than in the UK. Skill shortages were not addressed by a state education and training establishment, which, over decades, failed to prepare indigenous workers for key trades and professions, for example in building, nursing and medicine. One result is an NHS staffed by low-paid agency workers with poor English – and well-paid doctors from abroad, who could perhaps have better served their countries by working at home.  

Jim ended his comment by recalling MP Dennis Skinner’s Commons speech in which he attacked UKIP MPs and referred to what he called his “United Nations heart bypass” operation. He said: “..it was done by a Syrian cardiologist, a Malaysian surgeon, a Dutch doctor, a Nigerian registrar, and these two people here talk about sending them back from whence they came. And if they did that in the hospitals in London, half of London would be dead in six months.”

It was a moving and amusing speech and a wonderful piece of polemic, but Skinner should surely also have asked why our very wealthy country fails to train enough people to staff its NHS. After all, tiny cash-strapped Cuba manages to produce enough doctors and nurses to meet its own needs and has for decades been able to export them, as required, to war zones and disaster areas around the world. I have to ask, if they can do it, why can’t we?

I’ll respond to Tony’s comments about Lutfur Rahman and islamophobia, Ireland and feminism at a later date.
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