The debate over 'small boats' is a proxy (BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

August 10, 2023   7 mins

During a recent holiday in the East of England, I followed a sign through a farm gate offering raspberries for sale. It turned out to be a table in an empty farm outbuilding, with punnets of raspberries, a weighing scale, and an old ice-cream box full of loose change.

If you live at the periphery of a large English city, you’d be forgiven for thinking that no one does honesty boxes anymore. Even where I live, at the outer edge of the capital’s blast radius, a relatively high-trust English society is on its way to a markedly more Londonesque state of atomisation. A little town that until just recently recorded a handful of crimes every year now has county-lines graffiti in its alleyways, a persistent shoplifting problem and, as of late, a bevy of hard-eyed young women who hang about in the market square and get into men’s cars. Local police, if they ever put in an appearance, seem either unable or unwilling to do anything.

Why my town and not one in Norfolk? What is the difference between these two areas, such that in one the default is to trust strangers, and in the other to view them with increasing suspicion? The most obvious answer is also an uncomfortable one by modern moral standards: population turnover. While rural Norfolk doesn’t change very fast, my town has more or less doubled in size in a decade, largely swelled by people forced out by the capital’s ever-intensifying competition for housing.

I’m not suggesting no one should ever move house. But when a lot of people do in a short period of time, how does it affect the social fabric? A stable and tight-knit community isn’t sufficient to deliver high levels of interpersonal trust, but it’s probably necessary. A fluctuating community, by contrast, with a large proportion of individuals who don’t (or don’t yet) have longstanding ties to the area and one another, is unlikely to be one in which people leave their doors unlocked, or sell raspberries via honesty box.

Why is London pricing families out at this rate? It’s not just that the capital’s outsized cultural and economic draw sucks in workers from all over the country. Our national birth rate is well below replacement, and has been since 1973. But Britain’s population is still growing rapidly: it is just that 60% of this growth is via immigration, which has increased Britain’s foreign-born resident population from 4.6 million in 2001 to 10 million in 2021.

Almost a third of that immigration has been into the capital, which is now the most ethnically diverse part of Britain. In respectable society, this is framed as a feature rather than a bug: the Mayor of London, for example, is fond of telling us that “Diversity is our strength”. The consensus across government, media, NGOs and the urban educated classes is that ongoing high immigration is good, and anyone who disagrees is morally beyond the pale. And for beneficiaries of the resulting economic growth, this must seem self-evident. London is wealthier than my town, which is wealthier than rural Norfolk. Who gives a stuff about honesty boxes?

Quite a few people, as it turns out. Many who recall growing up in more stable communities dislike the sense of lower social cohesion that research shows accompanies rapid social turnover. From this perspective, it may be tempting to ask: who is the our in “Diversity is our strength”? But to the extent that population turnover is driven by immigration, expressing disquiet is to court moral untouchability. Excluded from polite discourse, then, views curdle online into paranoid narratives in which the issue is not social trust but race animus. In this view, mass immigration is a malign conspiracy by elites to abolish the native population: the so-called “Great Replacement”.

The truth, however, is both more banal, and more dispiriting. The so-called “Great Replacement” describes a dynamic that has some basis in fact, in the sense that the native-born proportion of the population really is declining relative to immigrants, and this is happening with active support from the political class. It’s just that this isn’t an elite conspiracy: we’re all implicated.

Overall, internet conspiracists notwithstanding, Britain remains one of the least racist countries in the world. I’m willing to bet most average Brits approach assimilating strangers in much the same way as my town does: if you pitch in and seem nice, you’re welcome. The ethnic makeup of local schools is roughly in line with the national average, and while social trust has declined as the town has grown, this hasn’t come with obvious racial tensions.

But this is what “assimilation” looks like. “Diversity”, on the other hand, is the kind of segregation you get when the pace of demographic change is too rapid for newcomers to assimilate. And a majority of Brits, despite being broadly welcoming to strangers, do indeed think this is the case.

Perhaps the most high-profile proxy for the tensions this produces is the debate over “small boats”. This smouldering political bin-fire ignited again this week, as asylum seekers were photographed boarding the Bibby Stockholm, a floating accommodation barge commissioned to house them. Furious responses ranged from horror at this “floating concentration camp” to local fury at its unwanted presence.

This is only the latest episode in an ongoing public psychodrama over Channel migrants, whose main plot now concerns the Tories’ Illegal Migration Act, a bill that aims to grant the Government power to immediately deport migrants arriving illegally by small boat, either to their home state or to Rwanda (or perhaps Ascension Island). This bill is fiercely opposed by NGOs and progressive politicians, and supported by more than half of British citizens.

Numerically speaking, however, both the bill and the issue it addresses are sideshows. The number of migrants entering Britain by small boat — 45,755 in 2022 — may seem high. But relative to 2022’s overall net migration figure of 606,000, this is a small number: around 7.5%. In turn, though, these comparative figures explain why the small boats debate occasions so much sound and fury: it is a proxy for the growing perception that, regardless of what the electorate wants, the political class has no interest in controlling migration of any kind, whether legal or otherwise.

A key reason for the Brexit result, especially among working-class voters, was a desire to return control over immigration to Britain’s elected government. The expectation was that politicians would then respond to the popular wish for a reduction in numbers. But despite our Home Secretary’s hardline posturing on asylum seekers, her hints at exiting the European Convention on Human Rights, or the moral outrage this all engenders from progressives, events since indicate that the Tories have zero desire to do this.

Quite the opposite. Even while posturing on asylum seekers, the Government opened new asylum routes, liberalised student visas, scrapped foreign recruitment restrictions, and amended the list of “shortage occupations” eligible for simplified visa applications to include hospitality and construction workers. In other words, having won two general elections with a promise to deliver Brexit — a promise heard as a tacit pledge to protect British workers from foreign competition — the Tories appear as committed as the administration they succeeded, and the EU they campaigned to leave, to doing the exact opposite.

In London, the result is a pressure on housing that has been escalating for my entire adult life. Even young urban graduates, a group long associated with high openness and liberal views, are beginning to make the connection. Why, they ask, is the country’s most expensive real estate housing its “least productive” residents? Why should the unemployed get social housing in central London, while young working graduates queue for house viewings and languish in mouldy Zone 6 bedsits? Should those on benefits be pressured to move to Middlesbrough?

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that those who have grown up in a world of waning social trust, and graduated into cut-throat resource competition, should be giving the London housing debate an increasingly Darwinist edge. A prudent social democrat might read such sentiments as a warning signal. For while it’s clearly possible to justify large-scale immigration on progressive grounds, a wealth of studies shows that mass immigration undermines social solidarity, which in turn reduces public support for generous welfare policies.

But in practice, progressives only ever argue for more, faster. And even the Tories just offer empty pledges, plus controversial but largely symbolic gestures such as the Rwanda plan.

So, is mass immigration a sinister elite conspiracy? Not really. The Tories are indeed profoundly two-faced on the issue, while Labour are enthusiastic accelerationists. Yet this is simply the consequence of Britain’s structural reliance, for both the economy and the welfare state, on continued economic growth. In practice, in a low-productivity economy such as Britain’s, this means population growth. And since Britain’s native population has been below replacement for decades, leaders must either level with the electorate about the need to trim our sails, or else grow the economy (i.e. the population) by other means.

In other words, the so-called “Great Replacement” is really the Great Contraception, seen from the other end of the telescope. And the only way to avert it would either be to reverse the Great Contraception — a policy which, even in considerably less liberal polities such as Hungary, has had mixed success so far — or face the social and political blowback from a painful economic adjustment.

Would such an adjustment be worth it? Perhaps for a leader such as Viktor Orbán, whose nation has a robust public consensus at both elite and popular levels on the importance of national identity. But in a post-imperial Britain deeply ambivalent about its history and identity? I doubt anyone but a hardline restrictionist would continue supporting such a brutal trade-off once the cuts really started to bite. And from the perspective of a political class that never needed honesty-box culture anyway, and whose peer group largely views cultural conservatism as low-status, the proposal would surely seem absurd: a repugnantly parochial breach of their duty to keep the economy growing, in the interests of national wellbeing.

Faced with both demographic decline and a need for growth, then, our leaders are hopelessly addicted to the growth-like economic effect of continued mass immigration. We can expect them to continue chasing this high, whatever they say, while praying that symbolically punitive proposals directed at Channel migrants will be enough to mollify any mutinous sections of the electorate. No doubt the hope is that the chickens of housing scarcity, angry young graduates, deteriorating social trust, faltering quality of life, and mounting nativist resentment will come home to roost on someone else’s watch.

At the core of the gulf between elite and popular views on immigration lies the intractable problem of the Great Lack of Self-Replacement. Responding to this, what looks from one perspective like the political class tearing up the social contract looks from our leaders’ perspective like upholding it. And the tragedy is that both views are true.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.