“Benefits tourists”. I was reading a piece by a friend in the Telegraph, and all of a sudden I encountered this phrase. I contacted him at once, and he said that, regrettably, it was one of common usage. Our own Prime Minister has done little to discourage this concept. In January, appearing on the Andrew Marr Show, David Cameron asked “should we look at arguments about, should it be harder for people to come and live in Britain and claim benefits?” In the next breath, he answered “Yes, frankly we should.”
The picture is thus painted of a group of immigrants who scour the world’s countries for the juiciest welfare markets, rather like discerning locusts looking for a hearty feed. Anecdotally, though, I know of no immigrants who arrived in the UK so that they could sit in their council flats and plunder the State. I do know of many immigrants who have arrived in the UK and worked countless hours for minute paypackets. Factually, too, the numbers suggest that the concept of “benefit tourism” is recklessly inaccurate. As noted in The New Statesman, “The DWP published research on the subject last year (the first time a government has done so) and found that those born abroad were significantly less likely to claim benefits than UK nationals”. The rest of the article can be read here.
But back to the original piece which prompted my post. The article, titled “The Left are closing down the debate on immigration”, contended that any attempt to address the issue of immigration was impeded, if not halted altogether, by the Left’s deployment of “the racist card”. The article then went on to support Melanie Phillips in her argument that “a clear-headed discussion needs to take place about our capacities and resources. (She was speaking, of course, not of refugees fleeing European persecution, but of jaded economic migrants and benefits tourists.)”
It feels crashingly obvious to say this, but sometimes the crashingly obvious things need to be said. It is absolutely not racist to talk about immigration. What is very often dangerous, if not altogether racist, is how we talk about immigration. A clear-headed discussion, as desired in the paragraph above, involves careful and forensic analysis of the burdens that Britain’s economy can bear. It does not involve the propagation by our Prime Minister of concepts that serve to stigmatise hundreds of thousands of people. And, on a personal note, there are few things which make a child of immigrants feel as utterly unwelcome in the UK as a conversation which is couched in these reductive terms.