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What the immigration debate reveals about the foundations of our society

Tom Kendall

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It’s never too far away from the headlines, but the past week has seen the political ding-dong about immigration return to the fore on your favourite news-sources. Three rather high-profile events all coalesced last weekend, to the delight of the Twitter commentariat who, seemingly ever ready for the next fight, started the flag waving and sniping that we’ve become so accustomed to.

First, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) won 37 seats in the Dutch national elections making him the leader of the largest party in Parliament, and therefore the likely next leader of the Netherlands.

Second, Dublin’s streets were rocked by riots, clashes with police, and looting after an immigrant was suspected of attacking four people in a stabbing attack earlier on in the day. 34 people were arrested, with those involved causing extensive damage in what was widely reported as ‘anti-immigration’ rioting.

Thirdly, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the UK’s immigration figures revealing that net immigration was at 672,000 for 2023 and 745,000 for 2022. These are unprecedently high, with one commentator noting that the 2022 figures alone are higher than net immigration throughout the entire period of 1945-2000.

The Dutch and Irish examples have been touted by many as evidence of a reaction against high immigration levels with Geert Wilder’s party promising to close the borders and admit no more asylum seekers. The release of the ONS statistics sparked a wave of public debate about the nature of immigration in the UK, with even the Labour Party expressing concern and promising a return to “normal levels” of 200,000 or so.

Depending on your viewpoint, the developments in the Netherlands and Ireland are either a concerning sign of the rise of the ‘far-right’ across Western Europe, or a natural reaction by ‘the people’ to unprecedented and unsustainable demographic and cultural change.

Compelling arguments can, and have been made, for and against both of these positions; you can read a Biblical perspective on immigration, written by one of my colleagues, here. But perhaps more interesting is what these events tell us about the health of our societies.

For whilst some wish to make the conversation about whether immigration is inherently good or bad, I suspect this is a rather unhelpful and impossible task.

Rather, it seems to me that these developments reveal less about immigration per se than they do about our social fabric. That is not to overlook the genuine nature of the immigration debate, but my suspicion is immigration actually acts as a proxy for other concerns. The immigration debate is often instrumentalised to talk about other issues on which it has an impact: issues such as housing supply, cultural identity, social cohesion, economic growth and public safety and security.

In these situations, people are less interested in immigration in and of itself but rather its impact on cherished public goods such as security, prosperity, and community. And when framed like this, the immigration debate is often actually about whether our contemporary social contract is working.

‘Social contract theory’ is an idea in political philosophy that wrestles with a basis for our political arrangement. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau (as well as numerous others) have all contributed their own takes on what the social contract is and why it is necessary, but at its most basic, social contract theory is an attempt to express the relationship between the government and its people.

Why do people willingly subject themselves to government sacrificing some of their own freedoms in the process? Well, for their own interest. If everyone was to go their own way then life would be ‘nasty, brutish, and short’ as Hobbes puts it. But by surrendering some of their freedoms to society, individuals can have safety and security and avoid anarchy and rule of the strongman.

And at one level, this is what we expect from our government. We do as we are told (more or less), we pay our taxes, and we don’t hurt others, and we expect the government to keep us safe, provide prosperity, and protect our (somewhat limited) freedoms as best they can.

But in our present political state you don’t have to look far to find examples of the contract breaking down.

Whether it’s the lack of prosecution for criminality, the lack of affordable housing (generally, but particularly for the young), stagnating economic growth, or even the growing poison that is cancel culture that undermines social cohesion and curtails freedoms, it feels like the terms of the exchange are being undermined.

So, when we come to the immigration debate, of course we are talking about immigration, but we must also be aware that there is far more on the table than simply immigration.

What the three events last weekend highlight is not only a worrying blend of genuine concerns regarding immigration, but also the volatile reactions of those who feel cut out of the social contract and who see no other way of making their voice heard. Immigration is simply the proxy by which to make their case.

This could be seen in the Brexit debate, in which the Leave campaign won - in part - by tapping into voters’ frustrations with immigration. Although there were genuine concerns about immigration in some quarters, the Brexit vote was also a far bigger middle-finger-up to a political establishment that many thought had betrayed its side of the social contract and was simply not paying attention to those who it had betrayed.

Similar factors are at play in Geert Wilder’s election: he is someone who has also promised to address immigration concerns, who has spoken openly about his desire for the Netherlands to leave the EU, and who says he wants to prioritise the concerns of ordinary voters.

The problem here is that by and large these are not productive, hope-filled solutions. They do not pursue that which is good and true and beautiful. They are not pro-people. Rather lots of the commentary is performative and hate- (or at least anger-) filled and dehumanises others. Much of the discussion is characterised by division, deceit, and ugliness that treats people as mere units in an economic machine.

And much of the political behaviour is simply performative theatre, and this is perhaps the most destructive of all, for it abuses people’s trust and undermines the system. This is perhaps best characterised by Boris Johnson’s premiership, who having campaigned against high levels of immigration so vocally, proceeded to himself usher in higher levels than any of his predecessors.

Whatever solutions (rather than just strong talk) there may be to immigration policy, given the alienation people feel from an impersonal and distant political system that either chooses not to listen or is structurally unable to, any solutions must begin a step further back with the social contract.

There are several criticisms that could be made of social contract theory, but most pressingly for this context is the enshrining of naked self-interest as the basis for our political interactions.

At its core, social contract theory is selfish – both parties agree to do their bit as long as the other complies. In other words, it says, the only reason I submit to government and pay my taxes is because I get something out of it. And you can flip this too, the only reason the government provides services and security is to stay in power, rather than any notion of public service.

One might argue that democracy provides a healthy mechanism for overcoming this. If a government doesn’t perform simply vote them out at the next election, and besides, the people have a hand in making the rules anyway so they will want to play ball.

And to an extent I would agree, but if self-interest is your governing principle for society, your foundations are not stable and cohesive, but are based on division and selfish agitation. Besides, the implication is this: if the contract fails the system fails. Arguably that’s what we are seeing now, with widespread dissatisfaction with democracy, politicians casting doubt on due process and the rule of law, and populists trying to govern through division.

It is at this point where Christians can be distinctive voices of hope and light. For the Bible offers us an antidote to our fraying social contract. More than that, the gospel completely revolutionises our understanding of government, political leadership, and social cohesion.

We see in Romans 13 that government has been instituted by God, for our good. It is not an arbitrary institution dreamt up by political theorists, it is divinely ordained, commissioned to pursue public justice and bring punishment on the wrongdoer. It therefore follows that as citizens we do not submit to government simply because it is in our interest, but because the institution itself is a good and God-given thing.

Yet this also has lessons for our governments: they are to be institutions of public justice. They are to fear and honour God as the one to whom they are ultimately accountable for how they use their power. They are to uphold that which is good and punish that which is evil. Their power is not to be used arbitrarily, but for moral ends, as determined in the eyes of the Lord.

The Bible also transforms our sense of citizenship. To be a citizen is not about maximising self-interest from the government or our communities. Rather, being a citizen, 1 Timothy 2 suggests, is about living peaceful and quiet lives and being, Titus 3 argues, committed to doing whatever is good, abstaining from slander, and instead pursuing peace, consideration, and gentleness to all.

The Bible, furthermore, tells us to love our neighbour as ourselves, to treat others rightly, and to honour them as our fellow image bearers. And to those who ask who is my neighbour? Jesus completely flips our world upside down – they are anyone and everyone that need our help, regardless of their class, accent, intelligence, economic utility, skin colour, or faith.

What a radically different way of operating! What a strangely distinct societal understanding!

This is the way of the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s Kingdom does not operate on the basis of naked self-interest. People's worth does not depend on their economic or political utility. Communities do not live in tension with one another: rather they serve one another in love.

And that starts from the top, with the King himself, who is guided not by selfish ambition, nor vain conceit, but by humility, service, sacrifice, and love. He is the one who humbled himself to being born in a stable, who washed the feet of his disciples, and who died on the cross for his enemies.

Our immigration debate is poisonous. There are genuine discussions to be had about levels of immigration, integration, and how we structure our society. But these very sensitive and painful discussions would be far easier and far more profitable, if we had an utterly different political foundation, one which was rooted not in economic and political utility or self-interested competition, but one which was grounded in the divinely ordained ways of the Lord that mirrored the love and service exemplified by our King.

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