Brexit campaign is about immigration fears
Dr Marius Luedicke discusses Britain's immigration fears and the dilemmas immigration poses as Britons head to the polls for the EU Referendum.
I have studied the conflicts between immigrants and locals for about a decade and have learned a good deal about why immigration causes trouble. The Brexit debate shows the typical signs of immigration conflict, but not many signs of dealing well with them.
In fact, both camps seem to talk past each other: Leave voters seem predominantly concerned with immigration, whereas Remain campaigners are talking about economic issues rather than addressing the nation’s social anxieties concerning immigration.
To understand the immigration dilemma means to understand the undecided and the average Brexit voter. So, let me share some research-based thoughts on why the immigration issue is so polarising and problematic.
Behind the Fence of a Nation State
It is fair to say that most British citizens are humanists at heart, having lived most of their lives in the spirit of democracy and human equality. Whether religious or not, people feel a moral obligation to help those less fortunate. That is why Britons donate about £10 billion to social causes every year.
However, British peace and prosperity depends on being a citizen of a nation state. But a nation state is a territory with a fence around it. It is built on inequality. People who are born and raised inside the fence enjoy great benefits and freedoms. People born outside of the UK’s or the EU’s fences have no right to live on British soil or enjoy the benefits of this great state. From a British perspective, they are the unlucky ones.
Nation states also compete with other nation states for wealth. Britons accept that their T-shirts are cheap because they are produced by citizens of foreign nations under sweatshop labour conditions and other forms of terror. Many also accept that their consumption has contributed to climate change affecting poorer nations more. This poses two moral dilemmas to humanist Britain.
The Social Dilemma
Britons feel a moral obligation to help others while adversely feeling you can only help so much. This stems from the belief that the nation state can only prosper if only some immigrants are allowed in (but not too many). There is no evidence to support if these fears are realistic because there is no historical precedent of a country being taken over by immigrants. Yet given the many global conflicts forcing people to leave their homes, it is unsurprising that many British citizens imagine current immigration conditions as a ‘flood’ rather than a steady ‘flow’ of people in search of security, dignity, and a life in peace away from terror.
Floods are dangerous because they can wash people away from their own turf. They can occur as storm surges (e.g. as refugee crises) or as creeping high tides (e.g. immigration from the EU), but always create chaos, destroy wealth, and often impose a sense of helplessness upon us.
Headlines report that the government has lost control over immigration, and those in power underestimate the ensuing cultural changes citizens feel will affect their security, wealth, and wellbeing in the near future.
What is the worst outcome imaginable? Becoming a foreigner in your own country. It is considered unfair and home citizens may want to put immigrants in their rightful place, where they have yet to deserve influence and equal treatment.
The Economic Dilemma
Because nation states compete with other nation states for wealth, they need better resources. Humans are among the most valuable resources these days. A prejudiced view insists that UK-natives are better than foreigners, in all respects. These supporters of Brexit would close the borders and ask British people to build better phones than Apple, design better cars than Tesla, and grow better coffee than Colombia. However, great people, great ideas, and great cultures grow on all soils, not just British ones.
This fact unfortunately creates two types of immigrants in a Brexiter’s imagination: those who are similar (and therefore permissible). These immigrants speak English and are ready to support the national economy versus those who speak foreign languages, come with unknown job qualifications, and are socialised into unfamiliar societies that might or might not respect British culture, social norms, or authorities.
Giving into fears of the unknown, advocating this concept of good versus bad immigrants is not an expression of human equality.
The EU Referendum
Both social and economic dilemmas are emotionally troublesome but leaving the EU will not reduce the trouble produced by these particular predicaments.
Instead, the social dilemma can somewhat be improved with better immigration and integration management as well as setting annual targets. This is the government’s task. The British people can elect a government that can be trusted to enforce UK laws consistently with no one – no British citizen, no immigrant, no banker nor corporation - getting away with betrayal, assault, or discrimination of those laws.
The economic dilemma, in turn, can somewhat be improved by gaining power within the network, rather than leaving it. EU membership encourages a lot of immigrants to work in Britain and helps the nation state compete with its European cousins. Leaving the EU would cut Britain off from these resources and reduce the nation’s ability to compete on a global scale.
Rather than focus on the economic pitfalls of Brexit, the Government should be combating the fearful image of a Britain overrun by immigrants by painting an image of a thriving multicultural society where Britons value immigration, but also control it, and where Britons and their government manage integration in such ways that everyone who immigrates also gets a fair chance to succeed.
Such national encouragement will turn immigrants into economic assets and also friends. Creating an optimistic image of a multicultural, but still British, Britain is one way for getting them closer to winning the referendum.
About Dr Luedicke
Dr Marius Luedicke is Associate Professor of Marketing at Cass Business School. His research explores the dynamics of consumer culture and branding with a particular focus on conflict and moralism. His work has been published in journals such as Consumption Markets and Culture, Psychology & Marketing, and the Journal of Consumer Research.