The Enigma of Conservatism’s Embrace of Hong Kong Immigration

July 9, 2020

 

Boris Johnson is a man not known for his support of immigration. During the EU Referendum he notoriously peddled the absurd myth that 77 million Turks – the nation’s entire population – would soon descend on Britain if we didn’t vote to leave. Just last year he complained that immigrants to our nation treated it ‘as their own country’.

 

Which is why I found it all the more remarkable when the Prime Minister last week set out his bold and generous offer to grant the right to remain to nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens. The man who built his reputation on the Brexit movement and the issue of immigration has just proposed the greatest liberalisation of our migrant policy in modern history. As a lifelong proponent of immigration and the benefits it brings to our country, I must say I was delighted. Yet I remain perplexed as to why a government more hostile to immigrants than any of its recent predecessors, and more broadly a conservative movement seemingly permanently enraged by the idea that, God forbid, people might come to this country and leave it better than they found it, have embraced this move with open arms

 

Which is why I found it all the more remarkable when the Prime Minister last week set out his bold and generous offer to grant the right to remain to nearly 3 million Hong Kong citizens. The man who built his reputation on the Brexit movement and the issue of immigration has just proposed the greatest liberalisation of our migrant policy in modern history. As a lifelong proponent of immigration and the benefits it brings to our country, I must say I was delighted. Yet I remain perplexed as to why a government more hostile to immigrants than any of its recent predecessors, and more broadly a conservative movement seemingly permanently enraged by the idea that, God forbid, people might come to this country and leave it better than they found it, have embraced this move with open arms

 

Many of the right’s immigration fanatics will argue that this unprecedented expansion can be justified now that Britain is free to set its own immigration policy. Others will argue that it is evidence of a new, global post-Brexit Britain moving beyond the confines of a stagnating Europe. Some may even believe it. Yet I cannot help but feel that the conservative right, perpetually foaming at the mouth over our immigration figures, are following their hearts and not their heads.

 

After all, every single one of the tired arguments that these serial obstructionists like to drag out to protest immigration apply in this case. Some argue that Hong Kong has more of the ‘kind’ of immigrant that Britain ought to embrace, higher skilled and better able to contribute to our economy. I for one have never bought the idea that the number of degrees you have is a fair indicator of the contribution one can make to our country. Our former Chancellor’s father was a bus driver; our current Home Secretary’s parents ran a newsagents. Yet even if you do, such claims are disingenuous. Established evidence shows that UK immigrants on average contribute £2300 more a year than they take out, regardless of their skill set. Points based immigration systems are empty rhetoric. The UK right now arguably needs low skilled immigration more than it does doctors and lawyers, with 80,000 farm picker jobs unfilled post-Brexit. The industrious citizens of Hong Kong have no more to contribute than the conscientious workers of Warsaw or the entrepreneurial employees of New Delhi.

 

There is equally little evidence to suggest that the people of Hong Kong will slip any more seamlessly into the UK than many other immigrants. Whilst undoubtedly true that more Hong Kongers speak English than other immigrants that come to our country, there are plenty of other measures of integration. Experience has shown that time and again South East Asian migrant communities are some of the most segregated in the western world. Many will argue that this unprecedented offer is a response to the shameful revocation of Hong Kong’s freedoms and the violation of our terms with China. Once again, on this as far as I’m concerned they are preaching to the choir. Yet I can’t help but feel suspicious of a double standard when these sudden humanitarians in the same breath denounce refugees, the oppressed and dispossessed citizens of the migrant crisis, as greedy opportunists who should be sent packing.

 

My fear is that the apparently irrational hard right embrace of Hong Kong immigration is borne more from imperialist nostalgia than an embrace of the diverse benefits of immigration. Seeing the patriotic citizens of Hong Kong protest whilst waving Union Jacks has tugged at the heart strings of Britain’s traditional xenophobes. Conservatives are understandably fond of those who, despite being half way across the world, are still unashamedly passionate about their relationship with Britain. The same can be seen in Brexiteers bizarre affection for the Commonwealth. It is barefaced paternalism, the last gasp of an outdated pretension to a neo-imperial sphere of influence.

 

This for me is the troubling lesson that the government’s largesse to Hong Kong has taught us. Conservatives of every creed appreciate that a post-Brexit Britain will need to be more outgoing than ever before. Yet this cannot be achieved through rousing dog whistles and rhetoric attempts to resurrect an empire too long in the grave. Instead we need a true, neo-liberal internationalism that embraces diplomacy, multinational institutions and partners in every corner of the globe. CANZUK and the Commonwealth aren’t going to cut it. The sooner we appreciate that what we are doing for Hong Kong is what we ought to do for the oppressed and downtrodden of the world, the better. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free and let’s build a modern Britain together.

 

 

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