It's within human nature to fear the loss of social stability or the pace of change. But when that turns on immigration, it resembles ugly chapters in history that we would be wise not to repeat.
I'm no big fan of David Aaronovitch, a man known for keeping a Tony Blair shrine in his living room. However, credit when due, his article in today's Times is the bravest I've read about immigration in a long time.
What if, basically, the growing obsession with immigration was simply another projection of our innate fear of change? Like Aaronovitch points out:
"It occurs to me, in all this, that net inward migration has again become the lightning conductor of people’s disgruntlement with change, with the ever more mobile and demanding world of the 21st century."How many times, in fact, have you heard commentators and politicians alike backing their argument with the notion that "our towns have changed beyond recognition since immigration began"? And who could deny that they have? Our towns -and our lives- look a great deal different compared to forty or fifty years ago.
Except that there's a million interconnected reasons for that, and we happily take advantage of most of them everyday - large scale immigration included - without even registering that we wouldn't be able to live in the early 20th century politically while enjoying the economic benefits of the 21st century.
Take this, for instance. We moan that 800,000 Poles and Czechs came in since 2004. But you hardly ever hear Johnny Ex-Pat relinquishing his automatic rights, along with 750,000 other Brits, to live and (in many cases) build unlicensed villas in Spain.
But then some people would tell you that no, really, the problem is overcrowding -because Britain's only a small country. But would the Daily Mail and the BNP stop ranting about immigration if Britain woke up twice the size tomorrow? Because, come to think of it, racism and fear of the immigrant is also alive and kicking in countries which have more "space" than Britain and took their vast share of immigrants as well.
Look at France. It is huge compared to the UK but, last time I checked, Le Pen's Party was still around. Or Italy. Again, bigger than the UK, but run by a right-wing government making hay of the same subject. And would Nick Griffin turn to an American racist to tell him that he's making a mountain out of a molehill because, really, his country is so vast?
But then they'd probably tell you that the real crux of the problem lies in "social cohesion" and "community cohesion". Fine. That's a better point. But is cohesion really changing just because of people of non-white skin colour settling in our towns? Are we sure there aren't other, more significant, factors?
Let's take them at random. The rise of clonetown, for instance. Think of how much this has changed both our lives and our landscapes. Just consider the end of the relationship shopper/shopkeeper the way our grannies knew it. In the past, getting hold of your loaf of bread, vegetables and prescription drugs carried a whole set of interactions and mutuality in a way we can't even imagine when we drive to that big fuckoff Tesco the size of the Birmingham NEC.
Or perhaps, consider the end of jobs-for-life, permanent contracts and universal workers' rights? Are we sure that huge switch didn't have any impact on the way we act, interact, and fear for our future, loyalties and job allegiance?
Or look at the way we eat. Would our lazy selves be prepared to fork out a tenner for that microwaveable ready meal from Tesco or Sainsburys if the price to pay was less immigration? Because if you just think about it, the reason why it's currently so cheap is that it's probably made by desperate immigrants accepting crap working conditions in food-packaging plants.
And on the topic of food. Would you accept a sudden switchback to when Britain was completely devoid of foreign restaurants and takeaways? Because the thing is: those thousands and thousands of premises (that have made such a massive contribution to our quality of life) don't just function on the their own, you know. The people who work there aren't ghosts who do a count Dracula and return to their coffins when the shutters are down.
They are human beings, often with families and kids who may also have to go to school, use public services and, more generally, exist. Multiply them for all the take aways and non-British meals that you're quite happy to guzzle over the period of a month and you may see the picture.
Yet, fair enough. If going back to a mythical 'pre-change' Britain means all of the above, like blogger Emiliano writes here, "then we'd see if you could afford a flat-screen TV, a kettle or even a football shirt made by British workers".
The trouble with shouting hysterically at immigration is that it often becomes a slanging match where arguments get muddled in a sea of ideological point-scoring. Because, out of all the usual arguments churned out against migration, there is one that stands the most: integration. Except that it's one that is intrinsically linked with class.
Because you wouldn't dispute, or would you, that the least integrated migrant families are generally those who live in deprived rundown ghettoes such as Small Heath, Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook in Birmingham. And when entire estates are left to their own device, they do turn into separate unintegrated entities, irrespective of ethnicity or religion.
Which is where the argument should, ultimately, be centred around. Because fair enough it's within human nature to fear the loss of social stability or the pace and direction of our changing society. But if we don't redirect the debate towards more rational paths, as opposed to things like "Civic Britons", "Ethnic Britons" and the Ice Age, then the risk is that we may wake up in even more frightening times than those we're currently living in.