“Instead of shouting at one another from our ideological fortresses, we should be listening to our political adversaries.”
Initiating conversation with somebody from an anti-immigration group is like trying to isolate a wildebeest from its herd. Only after weeks of banging my fists against a wall of silence did I hear a peep through the cracks. If nothing else, it’s for his readiness to speak his views boldly that James Jacob deserves respect.
Before finding Jacob, the lack of reception I received from immigration sceptics (not so much as a polite decline of my request) only served to dampen my regard for them. They struck me as a band of Wormtongues (The Return of the King, Lord of the Rings): noisy and pugnacious behind the safety and anonymity of the group, but reserved and cowardly as accountable individuals.
Jacob, however, effectively softened this perception. The 28-year-old is one of the more thoughtful and educated critics of open-door immigration and he was prepared to talk openly about the issue. That’s not to say he isn’t cautious. In fact, our conversation is punctuated with frequent pleas that I refrain from portraying Jacob as a xenophobe of any sorts. He stresses, for instance, that if I am to quote his admiration of Peter Hitchens, I am to do so only alongside his appreciation of Tony Benn.
“It’s appalling that the most skilled doctors, engineers, accountants…are leaving the developing world for higher wages in the Europe.”
Jacob’s politically nuanced position – he voted Liberal Democrats in the previous general election, only just ahead of UKIP – can be traced through his educational and occupational path. After a private school education, Jacob studied history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (renowned as a left-leaning institution) before graduating from University College London with an MSc in Security Studies. He now works with an aid organisation in Uganda. Perhaps this colourful background also accounts for his refreshingly unorthodox views on immigration.
Almost from the very beginning of my interview with Jacob, the roots for his position on immigration became evident. For the most part, his arguments derive from what he believes are negative impacts that migration has on developing countries.
“Immigration unrestricted, is dangerous for the host country and the country of origin.”
When I ask him why he thinks immigration is a danger, he tells me that it creates a brain drain in poorer nations, which are seeing their most skilful and qualified professionals fleeing to Europe in search of higher wages and living standards.
Jacob’s solution to this problem? Wealthy nations need to increase international aid. Presumably, this will help build stronger institutions that are better able to foster the living standards prevailing in the West. However, some have argued that the deficiencies in developing countries can’t be fixed simply through financial stimulus as it ignores the political maladies of these countries.
As well as an immigration sceptic, Jacob is unreserved in his support for the Brexit, stressing the need for UK independence if we are to effectively curb immigration. Jacob said this is necessary to alleviate the strains on UK’s working class; strains that Jacob insists are a consequence of migrant competition driving down wages.
The argument against this: A less penetrable UK would only drive migrants to the next best European sanctuary, aggravating the pressures on our neighbours. f this is the case, a more isolated Britain would do nothing to reverse the brain drain of dysfunctional sub-Saharan African countries.
The refugee crisis
However, one can’t discuss immigration without also addressing refugees. On this topic, Jacob is more restrained. He makes clear his opposition to any legal requirement for refugees to return to their country of origin after a certain length of time. And he is ambiguous in his views about whether the UK should adopt a points system such as that of Australia. Unlike the more radical immigration sceptics, Jacob is aware that through foreign policies of the past, the West share some responsibility for the problems driving the refugee crisis. He even admits to having supported the bombing campaign in Libya that “everybody at the time thought was a good idea but which turned out not to be.”
“We’ve created, through our disastrous foreign policy, the problems at the root of the refugee crisis.”
Despite his concessions, and his laudable advocacy for long-term solutions (including “rolling out the largest UN mission ever, with a brigade of peacekeepers”), Jacob is adamant that Europe is incapable of absorbing the huge numbers of refugees arriving at its shores. So I ask him if, instead, we should be sending boats of migrants back out to sea, taking after the Thai and Malaysian authorities in their treatment of the Rohingya refugees earlier this year. After clarifying his opinion of boat traffickers – “vile, outrageous people that should be detained” – he rather said: “It’s better to save the refugees than to kill them.”
Upon my insistence that he offer his own solution to the immediate crisis, he resorts to Hitchens-like pessimism, lamenting that there’s no good solution.
“It’s Hobson’s choice.”
I ask Jacob how he accounts for the great disparity in European attitudes towards the “refugee crisis”, citing the remarkable strength of support shown by the German and Swedish public. His response is blunt, but explains a lot about him: “I don’t take the view of the public seriously.”
Paul Collier, a leading social scientist specialising on Africa, lends himself more easily to a political pigeonhole. In his book “Exodus”, he emphasises the social and cultural disruption that unrestricted immigration reaps, tearing at the strands of national and institutional cohesion. What does Jacob think about this point of view?
“Multiculturalism destroys social cohesion. We should have a monocultural society.”
However, the immigration sceptic later remarks: “London is great because of the range of cultural contributions there. The best of London is a monoculture that embraces other cultures.”
Demographic factors that effect immigration
During the interview I ask Jacob about the economists and demographers who insist that immigration is a solution to population ageing and decline in the West, while it helps fix over-population in Africa.
On the first point, Jacob re-emphasises his discomfort with western elites benefitting from a cheap immigrant workforce at the expense of the working classes.
To the second, he agrees that it’s a good thing for people from overpopulated countries to migrate to underpopulated ones. However, when asked if the people of Uganda should migrate to Australia or New Zealand, Jacob responds: “No, there must be respect for sovereign autonomy.”
Economic benefits of immigration
Giving Jacob some figures, I note that Europe benefitted enormously from emigration during its years of intensive population growth. Between 1881 and 1910, about 19.5% of Europe’s population growth was exported, compared with just 0.3% for Africa between 1970 and 1980.
Why shouldn’t today’s developing countries be granted the same privilege?
“How do you justify to a British worker that there will be more people competing for their jobs due to historical processes?”
This is a valid point, but one that surely conflicts with Jacob’s disregard for public opinion.
Despite his contradictions, the nuance in Jacob’s case is admirable. It is perhaps most evident in his view of the French Burka ban, which he strongly disagrees with:
“I disapprove of any singling out of a religious symbol. This is a cultural assault.”
Jacob, clearly, does not toe the line. His colourful contribution to the debate on immigration should make those of us on the political left think twice about labelling and vilifying immigration sceptics. And it should be a wake up call to those of the extreme political right that they are more likely to be respected and understood if they engage in civilised debate.
Instead of shouting at one another from our ideological fortresses, we should be listening to our political adversaries.