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An Exercise in Scapegoating

Jonathan Portes leads one of Britain’s most respected economic think tanks. So when he pronounces on the economic effects of mass immigration, as he did in his polemic about my book The British Dream, one should listen (LRB, 20 June). But one should also be on guard when he tries to pass himself off as a neutral expert, drawing his views objectively from an academic consensus. First, there is no deep consensus on this issue. Second, Portes is a partisan here, well known in the New Labour era as the Whitehall economist most in favour of as much immigration as possible.

The British Dream ranges over, among other things, the history of postwar immigration, the multiculturalism story, national identity and the progress of Britain’s ethnic minorities, none of which Portes addresses, though he does spend a significant part of his critique on the issue of social mobility, which takes up half a page of a 416-page book. His piece is a narrowly focused defence of his own passionately held belief that the rising tide of mass immigration ‘lifts all boats’.

Both Portes and I accept that most of the economic literature concludes that large-scale immigration makes surprisingly little difference to growth (measured properly), incomes, employment and so on. But he then (like many economists) accentuates the positive, stressing the boost to incomes at the higher end of the spectrum and the hard to measure dynamism immigration creates; I (along with many other economists) stress the negative, the downward pressure on wages at the lower end and the job displacement.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 20 per cent of low-skilled jobs in Britain are taken by people born abroad. It is true that even with no immigration, the hard to employ in completely white former industrial areas like Barnsley would remain hard to employ. But, as the top economists at the government’s Migration Advisory Committee agree, there is clearly some trade-off between immigration and opportunities for domestic labour, especially in a weak labour market with better motivated foreigners, which raises issues about the country’s social contract with its poorer citizens.

The proper use of data is central to this debate but it is not enough to sit in Central London looking at databases: you have to talk to real people. The immigration story is not only a matter of economic cost-benefit analysis; it is also about experience and emotion, about communities and neighbourhoods and the pace of change. And evidently non-British net immigration of around four million in just 15 years has represented too much change for many people.

I tried to capture some of this in my book, in, for example, my pen portrait of the London borough of Merton. I spent some time there and spoke to many people, one of whom (a local councillor) mentioned the relatively high number of young white British Neets (people not in education, employment or training). I should have checked the number, which is in fact quite small, and Portes is right to pick me up on it. But the main point here is that a single Neet figure does not invalidate the bigger story I was trying to tell about an area which left many white people feeling out of place as the minority population has grown from virtually nothing to more than half in thirty years.

I cannot be so magnanimous about Portes’s reflections on Bradford. Here, the ‘rigorous’ social scientist launches a moralistic attack on my account based on one anonymous quote and a single misleading statistic. My source for the fact that Bradford has just opened two more special schools is Councillor Ralph Berry, chair of the education committee. And while it is true that Bradford is only slightly above the national average with regard to those who qualify as having special educational needs, there are other forms of ‘special help’ which push the numbers up. One of the main authorities on cousin marriage within the Pakistani community in Bradford, Nuzhat Ali, told me that nearly 30 per cent of Pakistani children suffer from mild or severe disability as a result of cousin marriage, adding that ‘almost half have special needs at school.’ Even if this is an overestimate, Ali is bravely opening an important debate and Portes should not be trying to close it down. One of the big advances in recent years is that we have been able to separate questions of racial justice from questions about the economics of immigration. With his highly emotional language – his talk of my ‘dangerous’ and ‘alarmist’ arguments and his accusation of ‘scapegoating’ – Portes is trying to weld them back together again.

The other point on which he is utterly one-sided is integration/segregation. He believes there is no problem of minority clustering and/or the related white flight. But work on the Census by Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck College has found that 45 per cent of ethnic minority Brits now live in wards that are less than half white British, often much less – and that figure has risen from just 25 per cent in 2001.

Finally, Portes accuses me of not dealing sufficiently with the positive case for immigration. But my sceptical arguments are aimed mainly at liberal Britain, where I can take the positive case for granted. In any case Portes’s free-market social liberalism – what the Americans call ‘Woodstock and Wall Street’ – is very widely represented in the public domain. Perhaps he would allow my social democratic scepticism a place too.

David Goodhart
London SE1

Jonathan Portes writes: David Goodhart’s response to my review is much more measured and coherent than his book. One of my main points was the contradiction between his reasonable discussion of the evidence on economics and integration, on the one hand, and his unsubstantiated and alarmist talk of ‘Saudi Arabianisation’ and ‘little Somalias’ on the other. His response reflects the former and does not attempt to defend the latter. In particular I think he recognises that whatever the perceptions, in Merton or anywhere else, there is little or no evidence that immigration has made more than a marginal contribution to reducing educational or labour market opportunities for less advantaged Britons. Indeed, those opportunities are frequently worse in areas with very low immigration. Goodhart refers to the ‘top economists at the government’s Migration Advisory Committee’ (MAC). As Jonathan Wadsworth, a member of the MAC, puts it: ‘Native-born youth unemployment rose less in areas that experienced a larger change in the share of immigrants.’

However, one assertion does require further examination: ‘The proper use of data is central to this debate but it is not enough to sit in Central London looking at databases: you have to talk to real people.’ I agree. But it isn’t enough simply to talk to people and report what they say as data without even the most elementary fact-checking. By Goodhart’s own admission, that’s exactly what he did, both in Bradford and Merton. For example, he could have written: ‘Nuzhat Ali told me she thought that almost half of the Pakistani children in Bradford have special needs at school (although the comprehensive and detailed DFE stats do not show that).’ Instead he wrote: ‘On some measures nearly half of all children in the area qualify for special help.’ In fact he hadn’t looked at any actual ‘measures’ – even the official statistics – at all. Nor am I being selective here, as he suggests. The book is littered with examples of unsourced ‘facts’. Most are probably accurate. But some important ones are not. In a book arguing that New Labour touched off ‘the second great wave of postwar British immigration’, he states, as fact, that prior to 1997 ‘even the gross annual inflows were only about 50,000.’ This is wrong by a factor of about five: the correct figure is closer to 250,000.

So when he interprets my criticism as an attempt to ‘close down debate’, and suggests my use of words like ‘dangerous’ is ‘emotional’, he’s missing the point. We have some areas of agreement and some genuine disagreements. But nowhere does my review argue that any of the subjects he covers are dangerous. They are, however, sufficiently important and sensitive that his slapdash approach to evidence and analysis is exactly that. I Iook forward to a corrected, comprehensively sourced and thoroughly fact-checked version of his book. That would open up debate rather than closing it down.


A Diverse Collection of Peoples

Shlomo Sand may well have ‘a shaky concept of Jewish history’, but Daniel Lazare’s is hardly more secure, despite the several good points he makes (LRB, 20 June). According to Lazare, ‘the words “Judean” and “Jew” did not mean the same thing,’ but in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek the same word covers both ‘natives of Judea’ and ‘Yahwists who genuflected towards Jerusalem’, which suggests that ancient speakers of these languages saw no essential difference between them. Lazare speaks of a ‘growing international movement’ of Yahweh-worshippers, but when does he think it began? It appears that a prince of Hamath in northern Syria in the eighth century BCE bore a name compounded with Yahweh’s, but the first evidence of an extensive diaspora emerges only in the sixth century, after the devastation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had dispersed many of the surviving inhabitants. The mildly syncretistic religion of the Jews of Elephantine derives all its elements from Palestine: contrary to what Lazare suggests, there is no detectable influence from the Egyptian context. It is far more plausible to suppose that they were descended from a mercenary unit recruited in Israel and Judah than that they were Egyptians recruited into an international religious movement.

And if the Jews only become ‘a people apart’ in early modern Poland, how is it that they were so brutally persecuted by Christians in England and the Rhineland in the 12th century and expelled from Spain in the 15th?

In this area Sand is much nearer the truth than Lazare. But both make the fundamental mistake of assuming that ethnicity is a matter of DNA, and that genetic diversity in the Jewish population invalidates the Zionist claim. The fact is that an ethnos is defined in whatever way its members choose to define it. That does not, however, give them exclusive rights to land also claimed by other ethnic groups, whatever the biblical assumptions.

Walter Houston
Macclesfield, Cheshire


Deeper Shallows

I suppose any parallel between C.S. Lewis and J.B. Priestley is bound to be hurtful to admirers of the latter (LRB, 20 June). But Stefan Collini’s ‘Jolly Jack’ caricature surely overlooks the dark side of Priestley. Certainly, there was ‘middlebrow’ consolation to be had from his wartime broadcasts (there was a war on, after all), but if that was all there was to them, why were Conservatives so eager to take him off the air? Priestley depicted a nation cut off from a prewar past, which in any case wasn’t worth going back to, but unable to make the leap to a better future without undergoing a kind of secular conversion, signs of which he thought he had detected in 1940. By 1945 the warning, as voiced by his eponymous Inspector, was getting more strident: ‘We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, they will be taught it in fire and blood and anguish.’ As befits Priestley’s Dissenting background, this fire-and-brimstone preaching has little in common with Lewis’s cosy Anglicanism. As it became clear, after the war, that Priestley’s hopes had not come to fruition, his darkness returned. Not much middlebrow reassurance there.

John Baxendale
Sheffield Hallam University


Unfair to Rupert

Ross McKibbin should be aware that relying on Robert McChesney for analysis of UK media is rather like relying on Fox News to help you tell the difference between Iran and Iraq: 100 per cent error is always a risk (LRB, 20 June). Whatever else aided Rupert Murdoch in creating his UK media enterprise, it was not ‘built on effective government-granted monopoly franchises’; and McKibbin’s claim that ‘without the active connivance of the political class Murdoch could never have constructed his empire doesn’t fit the facts.

UK regulators ousted Murdoch from London Weekend Television (where he held a 15 per cent stake), rejected his consortium’s bids for the UK satellite franchise and for Channel 5, excluded BSkyB from what became ITV Digital, and forced BSkyB to divest most of its shares in ITV. They have also imposed restrictions on BSkyB in relation to electronic programme guides, conditional access charges and the wholesale pricing of sports channels (this last restriction was overturned by the Competition Appeal Tribunal two years after the intervention by Ofcom).

The rule that prevents more than 20 per cent ownership of ITV by anyone who owns more than 20 per cent of the UK national newspaper market, or by anyone themselves more than 20 per cent owned by anyone owning more than 20 per cent of the national newspaper market, is squarely aimed at Murdoch and BSkyB. The special rules restricting Murdoch – such as the exclusion of BSkyB from broadcasting ‘crown jewel’ sporting events – were introduced by the Conservatives, and sustained by Labour.

It used to be thought that government complaisance allowed Murdoch to avoid a competition inquiry when he bought the Times and the Sunday Times, using the supposedly specious argument that they were jointly loss-making, even though the Sunday Times was profitable at the time. We now know – from a recent BBC documentary – that the then owners of the papers refused to sell them separately, and that even Harold Evans conceded that Murdoch was the best buyer for the two together. We also know that the cost of keeping the two papers open has been well in excess of £100 million: scarcely an indication of government-created value.

Likewise, many have assumed that Margaret Thatcher was somehow responsible for the success of Sky Television. She had nothing to do with it. Murdoch had nursed a loss-making version of Sky for nearly a decade before a Luxembourg company launched a satellite that allowed medium-size dishes to receive TV signals in the UK. BT rented one third of the capacity on the SES-Astra satellite, and sub-leased half of that to Murdoch. His launch of his new version of Sky came well before that of the official UK satellite broadcaster, BSB, which never caught up. BSB’s shareholders eventually fell into the arms of Sky, which was itself losing large amounts of money, but had a more determined owner. The forced merger could not have been prevented by the UK government without the collapse of both companies. The would-be consumers of satellite TV – and the former BSB shareholders – have been major beneficiaries of Murdoch’s ability to make a success of the joint enterprise.

McKibbin rolls out other old chestnuts. The infamous Sun headline – ‘It’s the Sun wot won it’ – did not reflect Murdoch’s views: he bollocked the paper’s editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, and told the Leveson Inquiry that the headline was tasteless and wrong. As it happens, in both 1997 and 2005, the Murdoch newspapers were far from unanimous in their voting recommendations.

McKibbin also cites Neville Hodgkinson’s misguided campaign twenty years ago in the Sunday Times, disputing the connection between HIV and Aids, as evidence of Murdoch’s anti-intellectualism. This makes as little sense as crediting Murdoch personally with Brian Deer’s dogged demolition in the Sunday Times of Andrew Wakefield’s MMR nonsense, or with David Walsh’s relentless pursuit of Lance Armstrong’s cheating (also in the Sunday Times), or with Andrew Norfolk’s sustained exposure of Asian grooming gangs (in the Times).

David Elstein
London SW15


Another New Iniquity

Francis FitzGibbon’s piece (LRB, 6 June) and Joanna Biggs’s blog post of 22 May both pay much needed attention to aspects of the legal aid consultation process which opened on 9 April and closed on 4 June, when a thousand or more protesters gathered outside the Ministry of Justice.

A point of special interest (Biggs got it slightly wrong in her post) is the proposed ‘residence test’ for legal aid. The existing tests are the test of merit, which generally requires proof that the prospect of success is over 50 per cent; the reasonableness test, which asks for proof that the case justifies funding; and the means test, for which income support is the general standard. The residence test would disqualify anyone who wasn’t able to prove they were a lawful resident of the UK at the time of their application and had been a lawful resident at some point for a year or longer.

There is a serious practical problem with this, which either escaped the notice of those who wrote the consultation document or was thought to be useful in reducing demand: the passports of British citizens are not stamped in or out at Heathrow, so your presence in the United Kingdom as a child in the early 1970s, say, or even a couple of decades later, may be almost impossible to prove. (If you haven’t at any point been a citizen, then bank statements, leases, wage slips etc are not evidence of ‘lawful’ residence.)

But the greater evil of the proposal is that it would produce a subcategory of person to whom almost anything could be done with impunity, in particular though not necessarily by state agents. Say a couple, both British citizens, arrive at Heathrow after living for sixty years in France, or South Africa. One of them is shot and wounded, having been mistaken for a terrorist, and the other is detained. The present proposal is that neither of them would have access to legal aid to challenge the lawfulness of what had occurred and was continuing to be done. The residence test will separate those who could, if necessary, seek protection under the civil law through legal aid if not possessed of adequate private means, from those who could not.

Eric Fripp
London EC4