Friday, 30 April 2010

Immigration and the core function of government

The core function of government - the one issue that overrides every other - is the protection of the people. It is interpreted in different ways at different times depending on prevailing circumstances but it rests on the proposition that a government governs an identifiable mass known as "the people". In the UK it is "the people" that give government authority to govern. That is why, from time to time, we borrow a stubby pencil (that we have paid for) and mark a cross on a ballot paper.

There is a little bit of a problem here, though, because "the people" to whom government must give protection involves many more individuals than "the people" who have the right to vote for the government. Obviously children below the age of eighteen are entitled to protection but do not have the right to vote and the same applies to many adults who are in this country even if they have no legal right to be here.

Although it is the government's primary task to protect both the voting and non-voting public from harm, it is an unwise government that fails to recognise the voting public's definition of harm. Some of that definition is almost universally agreed, such as the duty to protect us from big mushroomy bombs (the potential harm being physical), from invasion by a foreign country (the potential harm being loss of the right of self-determination) and from murder and theft (the potential harm being obvious). Other potential harms are defined by current political consensus rather than involving physical damage to body or property, the most obvious recent example being discrimination on the ground of pigmentation.

In the real world the concerns of the voters are not limited to broad matters of principle. They include, and I would suggest are often dominated by, perceived harms which might or might not actually be harmful but are felt to be harmful by those who matter - the people with their fingers wrapped around a stubby pencil once every five-or-so years. Immigration is one such issue.

"We don't want none of them darkies here" is very much a minority view and can be ignored as a serious issue at the current election, not so for "they come over here, take our jobs and our houses, get us to pay for their children's education and use our NHS". This was, as I understand it, the point made by the redoubtable Mrs Duffy. Either politicians address these concerns or the failure to address them will be reflected in the ballot box.

Once an issue of concern to the voting public is ignored it will just fester. Actually it won't just fester, it will fester in a way that politicians who fail to address it won't like. In answer to the argument "they come over here and take our jobs" the position is either that they do or they do not. If they do but there are good reasons for allowing the immigrants in question to be here, or if they do not, politicians must say so or the disquiet of the voters will not disappear. The same applies to the belief that "they take our houses". Criticism of the use of tax-funded services carries the implication that those from overseas who use them do not pay a fair contribution in tax. This might or might not be so, I do not know. What I do know is that many people with the vote, particularly in areas of high unemployment, cannot be persuaded that their fears are misguided unless someone is prepared to debate the point.

You see, "the public" that has the vote also has the right to define the protection it wants to receive from government even if the potential harm they wish to be protected against is illusory. Ignoring their concerns or treating them as expressions of bigotry is to breach the core function of government.


Dan said...

It's posts like this one that make this blog required reading. Measured, lucid and succinct. Bravo!

Antisthenes said...

The public perceive that immigration puts stress on public services, welfare system, the job market and the housing market. They are probably right there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to support that view. It is also seen to be undermining traditional social and cultural values, which is partially true as in reality they were changing anyway, immigration has only accelerated the process.

Politicians do not want to face up to immigration question because they do not have viable answers on how to curb and control it effectively. Some politicians are taking advantage of the situation to promote their own political ends and as a means of reducing costs (which is a false assumption).

If the problem of immigration is to be tackled so that the flow is sustainable and beneficial then the reasons that attract foreigners to the UK have to be identified and dealt with. So what attracts immigrants is jobs, free public services and generous benefits. Make jobs, free public services and benefits less available and the flow of immigration will slow to a trickle and will be directed to where immigrants are of most use.

Tackling of immigration will also address other issues that are causing economic strain on the UK. Alternatively you can say reforming the public sector and the welfare system will not only aid the British economy it will relegate immigration to unimportance.

Stan said...

Good post, FB - one little quibble, though. The primary purpose of the national government is the protection of the nation - not just the people. The nation being the ultimate expression of a people with a shared history, culture, tradition and values - the nation is the people and the people are the nation.

I may be splitting hairs, I guess, but I do think it's an important point because the "harm" you refer to can just as easily be cultural harm as much as anything else. When you weaken the binding culture of a people you weaken the very thing that holds the nation - the people - together.

This sort of harm is possibly the worst sort - a slow, creeping harm that sneaks up on you unnoticed and unrecognised.