The view that immigration should be reduced and controlled is often mischaracterised as a form of racism and xenophobia. However, there is a tradition of political thinking showing that controlling immigration is part of a necessary preservation of what makes society a continuous, united and functional whole. Rigid homogeneity can be destructive to society. However, too much change too quickly can also destabilise society and erode a crucial sense of home and belonging that is essential to people’s lives and happiness. As Alfred North Whitehead famously said, ‘The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and change amid order.’ Here we present the views of three thinkers – Sir Roger Scruton, Edmund Burke and David Miller – who have thought deeply about why sensible control of immigration is critical to society’s wellbeing and helps to unify a nation around a common core of meaning. These ideas clearly show that immigration control in a liberal democracy is completely justified and has nothing to do with anxieties about foreigners or racial prejudice.
Sir Roger Scruton
In a talk given in 2014, Sir Roger Scruton argued that immigration matters because people’s sense of their ‘way of life’ is critical to their everyday wellbeing. When people come in large numbers, it is only sensible that citizens feel protective of their way of life. Intellectuals and people in knowledge-jobs, see this as an overreaction, or worse, as narrow-minded, but Scruton said this is only because the things which sustain their lives, not just their livelihoods, are not under threat in the same way. A sense of community and continuity is what gives people a vital sense of meaning and makes their lives worthwhile. They have a right to protect this.
Scruton argued that this threat to continuity and community goes hand in hand with an overdevelopment of state welfare, which helps to facilitate Balkanisation and communities ‘living apart.’ This can be contrasted, Scruton argues, with the American experience. The frontier expansion created a natural process of integration, whereby successful immigration meant automatic participation in a shared story of national development. The welfare state disallows this. People’s intuitions about needing a sense of continuity in their way of life turn out to be validated, because otherwise we lack a common national story, one that binds society together. Conservatives care about controlling mass immigration, he says, because they care about preventing Balkanisation and continuing the national inheritance of common values.
Speaking in Antwerp in 2006 to the Belgian populist party Vlaams Belang, Scruton developed his idea of the right of home nations to defend their culture through identity. Crucial to his argument were what he called ‘Membership’ and ‘Oikophobia’. ‘Membership’ of a community, says Scruton, is based on a fundamental human need. ‘Oikophobia’ on the other hand, is Scruton’s counterpart to accusations of ‘Xenophobia’. Just as activists accuse people in favour of immigration control of xenophobia, Scruton says we can just as easily accuse them of oikophobia, that is, a fear of anything associated with belonging and a sense of home.
For Scruton this Membership is the fundamental need for the ‘first-person plural’, the ‘We’ that society represents. It precedes political affiliation and ensures society can be stable enough to continue to exist. Modern liberal democracies, i.e. western cultures, have a unique form of ‘Membership’ that evolved out of previous, more fundamentalist forms of belonging once associated with religion. A sense of national identity took over from the stringent requirements of a common European religious identity. This new version of identity was flexible enough to not cause mistreatment of heretics, but robust enough to maintain a sense of membership.
Scruton says: ‘For national loyalty is a form of neighbourliness: it is loyalty to a shared home and to the people who have built it. It makes no specific demands of a religious or ideological nature, and is content with a common obedience to a secular rule of law, and a common sense of belonging to the land, its customs and its habits of peaceful coexistence. Communities founded on a national rather than a religious conception of membership are inherently open to newcomers, in the way that religious communities are not. An immigrant to a religious community must be prepared to convert; an immigrant to a national community need only obey the law.’
This modern, liberal sense of membership is encapsulated in the modern idea of citizenship, commitment to the rule of law in a tangible, shared space, which we call the nation.
Scruton continues: ‘Freedom of worship, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and opinion offer no threat, we believe, to our common loyalty. Our law applies to a definite territory, and our legislators are chosen by those whose home it is. The law therefore confirms our common destiny and attracts our common obedience. Law-abidingness becomes part of the scheme of things, part of the way in which the land is settled.’
A sense of pre-political membership means we can accept views we dislike strongly, and elections that put opposition parties in power. Our sense of belonging to this mutual arrangement, bound by a sense of shared identity with the nation state, allows tolerance, as there is something we share despite our differences. No such tolerance exists in fragmented societies or tribal identity. Democracy assumes common membership. There is also the sense here that when this continuity and sense of belonging are violated, so too is the rule of the law. Though Scruton does not explicitly say it, it does seem to be implied here that people’s anxieties about mass immigration emerge from perfectly reasonable anxieties about maintaining social peace, justice and the rule of law.
Citizenship without this sense of loyalty to a common ideal of membership of something pre-political, says Scruton, turns the passport into a commodity, a right — with no sense of duty. Scruton believes only the liberal elite have the luxury of shaming alleged xenophobia, but the worker does not. Anxieties about immigration come from a desire to preserve what he knows keeps his community alive. As Scruton says: ‘The loyalty that people need in their daily lives, and which they affirm in their unconsidered and spontaneous social actions, is now habitually ridiculed or even demonized by the dominant media and the education system.’
On the subject of Oikophobia, Scruton says that the automatic hatred of one’s own customs and identity, the aspects of one’s home, is a natural adolescent feeling, but those on the left and professional activists tend to get stuck in it. It is natural to want to define oneself against the community, especially in youth, but to constantly exist in this state is to be trapped in a hypocritical rage.
Scruton says: ‘The oikophobe repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed from on high by the EU or the UN, and defining his political vision in terms of cosmopolitan values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community.’
The EU’s double standard on nationalism when it is convenient to breaking rival centres of power is a telling example of the oikophobe’s entangled hypocrisy. Scruton says the charge of ‘xenophobia and racism’ stems from a political elite in denial. Denial that Europe has depended for its integrity on national belonging to independent nations, and that those who are coming here under the guise of cosmopolitanism, rarely share the very Enlightenment values that cosmopolitanism claims to embody.
He says: ‘It is vital that the European states achieve an effective integration of their immigrant communities; but if the liberal élite will not discuss the matter, and continue to put all blame for the growing anxiety on the xenophobia of the indigenous population while ignoring the oikophobia which is an equal contributory cause, then the likely long-term effect will be a popular explosion, and one from which no-one will benefit, least of all the immigrant communities.’
The Anglo-Irish writer Edmund Burke argued in the wake of the French Revolution that the defining feature of British constitutional values is the implicit inheritance of liberties. This differs from the constitutions of other nations because since Magna Carta we have assumed a principle of governmental audit, not through top-down laws or structures, but through cultural inheritance. Burke says: ‘You will observe that from Magna Carta to the Declaration of Right, it has been the uniform policy of our constitution to claim and assert our liberties, as an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; as an estate especially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.’
The principle of continuity and inheritance is what is most salient to the question of ‘why does population change matter?’ Major disturbances to our national and cultural ecosystem are disturbances to a finely-tuned balance of values that have been handed down for centuries. We can see the consequences of this in the way certain minority communities weaponise free speech and hate speech issues. We can also see it in the way some communities do not respect freedom of religion or the rights of women of other classes. Multiculturalism allows us to see all cultures as equal, but constitutionally, this does not make sense, as so much of what makes Britain function is the ‘presumption of liberty’, something which is unique to our cultural history. Not all cultures share this presumption, and when it is not enshrined in law, it disappears when the population stops handing it down.
It is important to note that this is not wishy-washy abstraction. The key is to switch metaphors from seeing society as an engineered system to a natural organism. Burke said: ‘Whatever advantages are obtained by a state proceeding on these maxims, are locked fast as in a sort of family settlement; grasped as in a kind of mortmain forever. By a constitutional policy, working after the pattern of nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives.’
Burke uses the analogy of blood relations, but this is just an analogy. His point is not about race, but simply that knowledge and cultural values are transmitted almost through osmosis. He says: ‘In this choice of inheritance we have given to our frame of polity the image of a relation in blood; binding up the constitution of our country with our dearest domestic ties; adopting our fundamental laws into the bosom of our family affections; keeping inseparable, and cherishing with the warmth of all their combined and mutually reflected charities, our state, our hearths, our sepulchres, and our altars.’
The very ideal of inherited continuity acts as a binding agent, because it is so awe-inducing. It’s very ineffability is its strength, and not at all a weakness. ‘Always acting,’ says Burke, ‘as if in the presence of canonised forefathers, the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess, is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity, which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble freedom. It has a pedigree and illustrating ancestors.’
Mass immigration disturbs this pedigree. Some might still argue that such a disturbance is something devoutly to be wished, but what they cannot do is deny that such disturbances change society irrevocably, changing the traditions and values of Britain that have sustained it over time. Without continuity, there is no reverence and thus no civic commitment. Burke says: ‘We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle on which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophists cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued, who have chosen our nature rather than our speculations, our breasts rather than our inventions, for the great conservatories and magazines of our rights and privileges.’
The contemporary academic David Miller has argued for control of borders on both cultural grounds and utilitarian grounds in the context of liberal democracies. In the first case of cultural grounds, he has picked up on Edmund Burke’s innovations to argue in favour of border sovereignty because ‘the public culture of their country is something that people have an interest in controlling: they want to be able to shape the way that their nation develops, including the values that are contained in the public culture. They may not of course succeed: valued cultural features can be eroded by economic and other forces that evade political control. But they may certainly have good reason to try, and in particular to try to maintain cultural continuity over time, so that they can see themselves as the bearers of an identifiable cultural tradition that stretches backward historically.’
It may be objected that whatever changes immigration brings they might not all be bad, and that it is by no means set in stone that citizens have a right to thwart these changes. They might also find that the changes are happening anyway, through other means than immigration. However, the main point in Miller’s argument seems to be that there is a connection between a sense of cultural self-determination and borders. Part of what it means to belong to a place is to have some agency in determining the preservation of one’s culture. It is never absolute, but border control is not about absolutism. It is enough that we acknowledge that culture is participative, and that mass immigration erodes that crucial sense of participating in a culture. To drive home the importance of participation, we might also argue that participation is essentially progressive, as it means culture is not something hard and fast or unchanging. In that sense, welcoming others in controlled ways that allow for integration and social enrichment are key parts of belonging and participation. By riding roughshod over this important aspect of citizenship we not only weaken the idea of citizenship in a democracy, but we also weaken the very mechanism by which a society can be truly welcoming.
In the argument from utility, Miller says that fellow feeling and a sense of common identity are precisely what motivate citizens to make the necessary sacrifices that maintain a liberal democracy. If there is no sacrifice of individual wants for the wider cohesion of collective needs, then we cannot be said to have a fair and truly functioning society. We are always on the cusp of some regime other than liberal democracy. However, a necessary pre-requisite to this common sacrifice and balance between individual and collective needs, is a common sense of identity, some sense of belonging to a community that embodies a sense of shared values. If I get a parking ticket, I might want to punch the smug attendant who seemed to enjoy his authority a little too much, but my sense of duty to the wider peace and welfare of an established liberal democracy that benefits me in the long run, must and most of the time does, prevail. It prevails because I identify with those values, and implicit in my identification with them is the knowledge that others identify with them too and that we are bound together by that identity. In short, a sense of continuous, common identity is essential to justice. We thus have a right to demand controls of immigration when the numbers threaten that continuity of identity on practical grounds. It might be rightly objected that liberal democracies must be careful about demanding total homogeneity on these grounds. But this objection assumes that all calls to limit immigration are calls for nativist homogeneity. Part of the problem in contemporary discussions about immigration is exactly this question of a line between common identity and narrow homogeneity. It is not immediately obvious that one blends into the other, as many open border advocates will argue. What is clear is that a functioning society depends on some sense of continuity and identity, and thus seeking to preserve these things is justified on grounds of liberal utility.
These arguments help to present a case for border control and reduced immigration on the grounds of positive, liberal and common-sense ideas of what a nation is and what borders serve to protect. They are of course open to debate and are not set in stone. What is clear, however, is that it is no longer tenable for advocates of open borders, asylum activists and those on the political left generally, to immediately dismiss any wish to reduce immigration or affirm border sovereignty as nativist and motivated by hate and resentment of ‘the other’ or foreign peoples. We have seen here that there are many people who care about reducing immigration because it is valuable to preserve one’s culture for its own sake, and also that it may well be necessary for justice and social peace in a liberal democracy. Many will disagree with these claims, but they must first recognise that the views expressed by the philosophers here capture the common-sense instincts of many ordinary citizens, and that these concerns have nothing to do with negative views of outsiders. Rather, they represent the legitimacy of a positive view of one’s home country and culture and the positive nature of any desire to preserve them.
Scruton, R (2012) Immigration and the Welfare State at a post lecture Q&A session of a lecture held in Ghent, Belgium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uF67vCN-Vw
Scruton, R (2006) ‘Immigration, Multiculturalism and the Need to Defend the Nation State,’ Antwerp Belgium in The Brussels Journal June 24 2006 https://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/1126
Burke, E (1790), The Evils of Revolution, Penguin Great Ideas
Miller, D (2005) ‘Immigration: The Case for Limits’ in Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, eds. Cohen AI & Wellman CH, Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 193-206