Controversy came to York University in the form of the debate “This House believes that immigration MUST be curbed”. This latest discussion hosted by the York Union welcomed four excellent speakers. Speaking for the motion was the eloquent Alp Mehmet – distinguished British ambassador and now Vice-Chairman of MigrationWatch UK. He was joined by impassioned UKIP councillor Victoria Ayling. As well as being a qualified barrister, Ayling achieved a landmark swing of 6.7% in the Labour heartland of Great Grimsby in 2010.
Speaking in opposition to the motion was the excellent Dan Hodges, journalist and Labour commentator for the Daily Telegraph. He was seconded by the veteran award-winning journalist Afshin Rattansi, best known as presenter for RT’s “Going Underground”. The debate attracted a great deal of attention and there was standing room only in the packed Bowland Auditorium.
Dan Hodges opened the debate with some enlightening concessions to the proposition. He confessed that immigration is now a major issue for the majority of the British public; quite simply, the progressives towards immigration had let the anti-immigration camp run the national debate. Nevertheless, he argued that immigration had incontestable economic benefits as well as social merits (though he acknowledged localised tensions). More than this, any attempt to seriously control immigration would ultimately fail due to immigrants’ resolve to live and work in Britain.
In response, Alp Mehmet argued that, at best, the economic case for immigration was ambiguous due to conflicting evidence from various studies. In addition, he claimed that it was not a debate about immigration in itself but rather the uncontrolled mass immigration that Britain has experienced in the past decade. Ultimately he said social benefits only come about when numbers are at a sensible rate and immigrants can effectively integrate into British society.
Afshin Rattansi then took to the floor being slightly aghast that such a debate was even taking place in Britain, 2014. There were unquestionable economic benefits from immigration and indeed further immigration should be encouraged to boost the economy. Only 1.5% of Britain is developed so space is not an issue. The country is socially far stronger due to immigration and as young voters, we have a moral duty to be proponents of immigration to combat the xenophobic and racist anti-immigration rhetoric.
The equally polemical Victoria Ayling then addressed the house citing her own experiences in Boston and their problems with over-crowding, worker exploitation, gang masters, heavy drinking and a social divide brought about by the explosion in immigrant population over the past 10 years. Boston is not alone and there are many other towns and cities with a similar story. Away from the detached analysis of statistics there was a real story to this debate.
The Chair then opened up questions to the floor of which there were plenty, showing clear audience engagement. Questions asked about the job market, tolerance, compassion, Malthusian panic and racism amongst other topics. Both sides of the House answered each in turn, becoming more emotionally charged as they deviated away from their planned speeches.
In the end, the Opposition managed to win the debate achieving a swing of around 10% from the audience. With the debate over, the speakers and audience continued the discussion over some well-deserved wine. The combination of cogent argument and evident passion made this debate one of the best so far from the York Union.
Before the debate, I had a chance to ask Dan Hodges and Victoria Ayling some questions:
Q: Why is immigration the number one concern for the British public at the moment?
Dan: To be brutally honest, those of us who regard ourselves as progressive on this issue have dropped the ball. When Labour came to power in 1997, 3% of the British public thought that immigration was the most salient issue for them. Now the figure is around 40%. That is indicative of how we on the Left have lost control of the debate. What was a broad consensus has almost become a moral crisis.
Victoria: The ordinary man and woman in the street is suffering as a result of uncontrolled, mass immigration. It’s about the sheer numbers involved which is causing the issues. It’s regardless of race or background. We have uncontrolled immigration from the EU and a lot elsewhere too and enough is enough.
Q: Do you feel the British are becoming more xenophobic?
Victoria: I wouldn’t call it xenophobic; I’d call it a reality check. Politicians are refusing to redress this.
Dan: I don’t think people are becoming more xenophobic. What we have seen is the opponents of immigration becoming more sophisticated in terms of how they argue their case. Also, legitimate concerns about localised impacts were not addressed.
Q: How important have UKIP been in opening up the debate on immigration?
Dan: With the greatest respect, not to a great extent. What UKIP have done is move into the gap created by the implosion of the BNP. I think it has been done for purely tactical reasons. UKIP is exploiting concerns rather than leading the debate.
Victoria: We do not fill the gap left by the BNP which is an openly racist organisation. We just want to do what is best for our country. The main parties have neglected the will of the people and the country is going down the pan because of it; we are listening to the public.
Q: What is your ideal immigration policy?
Victoria: A controlled, sensible policy that puts this country first whilst helping genuine refugees. We cannot take the whole world into this country; we haven’t got the infrastructure, the money and we cannot do it anymore.
Dan: A managed immigration policy which has at its heart a recognition that a net increase in immigration is a positive and is the way to go forward. I agree with Victoria’s point on refugees and that we cannot take in the world so we have a degree of consensus there.