Report: Open Borders – who profits?
|30 May, 2014
|Filled under Debates, Opinions
Manick Govinda opened proceedings with a rousing speech on the importance of open borders for intellectual, cultural and artistic exchange. For Govinda in stepping out into the world and contributing to it, an artist is able to transcend borders, contributing something of true value to all human beings, with the ability to bring people together. However, as he went on to illustrate the ability of artists to do this in the UK is being heavily restricted by current legislation. This legislation projects the image of the strong arm of the state, but its operations seem to be Kafka-esque, restricting movement and closing down international connections and opportunities for growth, creating a little-Englander affect.
According to Govinda, the situation we now find ourselves in is one grown out of the debate for managed migration. The desire to manage migration of non-EEA peoples has led to restrictive monitoring and mobility, restrictions on the right to work and the right of individuals to create a better future for themselves and others. For Govinda this restrictive and punitive system is having a very negative affect on the development of arts and culture – both nationally and internationally – an enterprise that requires open borders, and ultimately, unlimited freedom to move, create and exchange. The benefits of an open and free cultural exchange, beyond artistic development, stems from the capacity of art to transcend borders and particularities and present a truly human experience with which we can all identify and find commonality. Artistic exchange – music, arts, literature, film making – strengthen international cooperation and solidarity between people.
Second to take the floor was Barry Kushner who drew on his own writing and history to present a compelling case for open borders.
Kushner opened by arguing that the movement of people is not a historically unique phenomenon. For millennia people have moved across borders and between continents in search of a better tomorrow, something which Liverpool has benefited greatly from as a City. These ‘natural flows of people’ mean that no one is purely indigenous to the British Isles, and Kushner was very critical of appeals to this position. Continuing to develop this theme, he questioned definitions of what an immigrant is, legally and socially, pointing to his own ancestry as a second generation immigrant of Jewish descent and Liverpool’s history as a melting pot of different cultures and nations.
Building upon this opening, Kushner went on to argue that the anti-immigration climate in the UK is linked to the poor economic conditions and austerity measures that have been placed upon people. Being both critical of the Conservatives and his own Labour Party, Kushner questioned the use of official statistics by the government, politicians and the media. He stressed that there are around 5.5 million UK citizens living outside of the UK and that the system should be understood as working both ways. Ultimately, according to Kushner, immigration should be seen as a benefit to the country – economically and socially – and it is the politics of austerity that is exploiting anxieties Around immigration.
Our next speaker was Kristina Cranfeld who brought a unique presentation to the discussion, presenting a shortened version of her film Manufactured Britishness. The film draws on Cranfeld’s experience of the Life in the UK (British citizenship) test.
Originally from Uzbekistan, Cranfeld passed the test and is now a ‘naturalised’ British citizen, a process that she found very strange and confusing. As Cranfeld pointed out, the test has gone through several revisions, now focusing on British traditions. The film picked up on this in a witty and intelligent way, showing ‘potential citizens’ learning how to queue and deal with difficult situations in a typically British way.
The crux of Cranfeld’s criticism lay in the way in which the government has attempted to claim, construct, quantify and codify British identity or ‘Britishness’. When asking ordinary people in the street, Cranfeld found that everybody has a different conception of what it means to be British, in contrast to the strict limits imposed by the test. This highlighted the problem in the immigration debate. The ‘us vs them’ or the ‘British vs non-British’ debates rely on binaries that are not strict in any sense. The holding of the right to confer citizenship by the state, Cranfeld argued, was not a good or progressive system. Citizenship should lie in the hands of the people, according to Cranfeld, in relationships that are created and developed through interaction, allowing for a more fluid and open understanding of ‘Britishness’ that can continually develop with the changing face and demographics of the nation.
George Howarth, MP for Knowsley, took to the floor next bringing in experience from a long career as a politician. Howarth began by saying that for his constituency and people more broadly, immigration is very, if not the most, important issue facing British politics today. The population of Knowsley is made up of less than one per cent of immigrants. However, in his experience in talking to his constituents, Howarth relayed that they felt immigration was far higher than the reality. He argued that this perception is due to negative reporting in the media, creating myths and misconceptions of the reality of the population change.
Howarth then went on to echo some of the arguments made by his Labour colleague. Howarth forwarded that it is important for politicians to present the truth about immigration, highlighting the skills gaps that are filled and the added value to the economy that immigrants make. The immigration debate needs shifting, according to Howarth, away from demonisation of immigrants and towards the benefits of more porous borders. Critiquing the economics of the current discussion, he called attention to the fact that EU migrants had contributed some £15.2 billion to the UK economy from 2007-11. He finished by asserting that the current government is failing and using immigration as a scapegoat.
The final speaker of the night was Chris Gilligan, who rooted his argument in the problems that are facing British politics and the problems this creates in forming consensus around the values we wish to espouse.
Gilligan argued that the current debate around immigration has only focused on questions of managing borders, rather than what immigration means for people and what it means for the future of the country. This is due to the fact that there are only degrees of difference between the political parties, according to Gilligan, none of who will take the leap to pose the question of the night: ‘open borders – who profits?’ In other words, everyone is talking about immigration but nobody is actually having the debate. He highlighted that attempts to second guess public opinion were rarely backed up by any proper empirical research, as the opinion polls present an unclear picture as to what the British populace think about the issue.
Gilligan went on to develop his argument, holding that the problem relates to the way in which politics is now practiced. For Gilligan, the politics of immigration today is focused on quantification, more like accountancy work, instead of being rooted in big political and moral questions around human experience of freedom and governments obligation to uphold the right to freedom. If freedom were to be repositioned as the raison d’être of politics, then forwarding open borders rather than limiting people to one place through accidents of birth, would be the logical way to think. People would simply be accorded the freedom to move. To approach politics in this way, according to Gilligan, demands the promotion of humanist values, with a future vision rooted in the freedom of the individual. Therefore, for Gilligan, open borders are an ideal to work towards for people wanting to build a fairer and better vision of a global society.
Despite the relative consensus on the panel, the floor was split on the issue of open borders. While a few of the audience echoed the sentiments of our speakers, several others were more sceptical on the issue, leading to contestation between the audience. For those who were more challenging of open borders, the questions were posed as to whether Britain was ‘full up’ and whether there needed to be a halt on all immigration so as to rebuild and consolidate what it meant to be British again.
For some, it was a matter of maintaining national autonomy, where open borders policies had been imposed by the European Union regardless of the wishes of the British people. People making the case for immigration controls also pointed out that they were not motivated by intolerance and, in terms of policies for ‘managed migration’, were actually more concerned with protecting all working people’s living standards in a low wage economy. These contributions were useful cautions against over simplifying the argument by linking pro border control political views with anti immigrant feeling. One point that everyone – pro or anti open borders – agreed on was that a sense of community, citizenship or national identity is something that cannot be artificially imposed from above.
The above challenges underlined some of the issues that our speakers had touched on. Within Britain there is a confusion about what it means to be British, how a changing ethnic make-up of the country will impact upon this and how other people can be integrated into our society and contribute to it. Throughout the British political system – from education to health, immigration to foreign policy – there have been attempts to recapture what it means to be British or to stultify it all together. While the battle of ‘Britishness’ rages on, the case for humanism and internationalism is lost behind parochial concerns. For open borders to truly take hold as a political ideal in British politics, the progressive arguments for exchange, development and solidarity need to be developed in terms of providing the basis for building a better, more prosperous society for all.
Report by Christopher Beckett