Here’s an open letter written (with permission) in response to a young North Thanet voter currently in Australia, who has taken the time to write me an email with some thoughtful and tough questions in it, before letting a family member vote for him as a proxy. (Good on you mate for being so interested, from afar).
His first question was on immigration, with the observation that balancing human compassion and the pressures caused by the needs of a rising population isn’t easy and boiled down to: “What is your standpoint on immigration?”
Firstly, an apology, because my reply is far from the model of brevity I would have hoped. Oli – I’m truly sorry for the long and convoluted ‘answer’ as well as the personal anecdotes. I’m not a big one for binary opposites and it’s a complicated issue.
Immigration Policy: Some Low-Hanging Fruit
Several years ago I proposed to my wife, an Indian national, who had come to the UK to study for a master’s degree. At the time I was working for a local newspaper on the gargantuan salary of £15,500 per year. That proved a big problem with HMG.
You see Her Majesty’s Government, in its infinite wisdom, had decided that if you are a British national and you want to marry your betrothed, if he/she is from outside the European Union, you have to prove you are earning over £18,500 before you are allowed to do something quite as cavalier as fall in love and get married.
The logic – other than that poor people shouldn’t be romancing/marrying/breeding with non-Europeans – is presumably that if you are working hard but earning a pittance, you and your foreign husband/wife might end up on benefits. It’s a poor assumption to make; as a single father of two children, without my wife’s subsequent support, I’d have been much more likely to ultimately prove dependent on benefits.
More importantly — even though with the help of a capable and generous lawyer and a spot of freelance work that brought me above that income threshold, we eventually did marry happily — her visa doesn’t allow her to claim benefits anyway. There are, in short, many absurdities in the immigration system, driven by the urge to seem ‘tough on immigration’, of this is just one particularly ridiculous and classist example.
(I don’t think the government should even begin to tell British passport holders that they can’t get married because they are too poor. What the hell? Preventing sham marriages? Fine. Legislating against true romance? Dystopian).
Here’s another (I’ll come to the bigger picture anon; just a few low-hanging fruit first please!) The government has set itself a threshold under which it would like to keep immigration. Given that it effectively has no control over European migration, that’s a pretty absurd move guaranteed to fail anyway (as we have seen). What’s worse, the government insists on including foreign students in its net migration statistics, despite a plea from its own Higher Education Commission not to do so.
Here’s what it costs per year as a foreign student to do a BA in Anthropology, for example, at the University of Kent: £15,380. That’s over £46,000 for a degree. Plus, of course, attendant living costs. Foreign students pay through the nose and are of huge benefit to the UK. I can’t find more recent statistics with a quick search, but Universities UK’s 2014 documentation puts the overall contribution of non-EU students to the UK economy at £7 billion in 2011–12.
Higher education is a fiercely competitive market globally, with Canada, Australia, the U.S. even Singapore and Hong Kong fighting hard to attract foreign students looking to do degrees taught in English. Our government by contrast sees fit to include them in an overall statistical measure that it is trying to reduce. Bizarre. Those (the income threshold for foreign/UK marriage and the inclusion of foreign students in net migration figures) are two immigration policy anomalies I’d like to see completely reversed.
The Bigger Picture
On to the bigger overall picture: I’m inherently sympathetic to migrants. I work with the grandchildren of eastern European Jews who arrived in the UK and U.S. with nothing and made a storming success of themselves. In my previous job I worked closely with a clever and driven Romanian woman, fluent in English, French and her mother tongue.
My Albanian neighbour is an absolute geezer; friendly, polite and helpful, the Hungarian across the road likewise, the world’s best fish & chips (likely first brought to the UK by Portuguese Jews) are made in Herne Bay by a Cypriot, etc.
I also love the fact that the UK has proven a sanctuary for refugees ranging from radical thinkers like Kropotkin and Voltaire through to one of the founders of Marks and Spencer or the designer of the Mini; I love the fact that 15 Nobel Prizes have been won by refugees who found asylum in Britain.
My starting position, in short, is that intellectually, culturally and economically, migration benefits the UK and that refugees in particular should be treated with significantly more respect and humanity than they currently are.
The Green Party, incidentally, has it as a core part of its guiding principles that “no prospective immigrant will be held in detention for migration-related reasons, other than in the most exceptional circumstances, e.g. a prospective migrant who poses a serious danger to public safety.” I agree. Locking up asylum seekers and treating them like criminals is inhumane and also expensive; that obnoxious corporations like G4S and Serco profit from this process only makes it stick in the craw more…
And yet: The failure of the mainstream political establishment in the UK, the chattering classes and certainly the left to critically engage with the concerns of mostly working class voters about the pressure placed on social infrastructure by a rapidly growing population and the impact on wage deflation of an abundance of cheap labour has been a colossal mistake and directly contributed, in my eyes, to the rise of UKIP.
That is rather ironic: Here’s a darling of the left, Ha Joon Chang, author of “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”, on migration control:
Wages in rich countries are determined more by immigration control than anything else, including any minimum wage legislation. How is the immigration maximum determined? Not by the ‘free’ labour market, which, if left alone, will end up replacing 80–90 per cent of native workers with cheaper, and often more productive, immigrants. Immigration is largely settled by politics… the living standards of the huge majority of people in rich countries critically depend on the existence of the most draconian control over their labour markets – immigration control. Despite this, immigration control is invisible to many and deliberately ignored by others, when they talk about the virtues of the free market.
I have already argued that there really is no such thing as a free market, but the example of immigration control reveals the sheer extent of market regulation that we have in supposedly free-market economies but fail to see. While they complain about minimum wage legislation, regulations on working hours, and various ‘artificial’ entry barriers into the labour market imposed by trade unions, few economists even mention immigration control as one of those nasty regulations hampering the workings of the free labour market…
Nigel Farage was jeered on stage in the recent debates when he suggested that free movement of people in Europe runs the risk of making the minimum wage a ceiling rather than a floor. He didn’t deserve to be. There’s a rational debate to be had there; it’s a multifaceted one though and of course UKIP have done themselves no favours by the language and frequently ugly tone in which they have couched it.
In my opinion Europe’s edicts on free movement have much going for them. But can we expect the labour market to end a large-scale movement of people seeking better opportunities for themselves from east to west? (i.e. the job opportunities run dry…) Should we? If not, what is the carrying capacity of a densely populated nation state?
Local Government Association (LGA) data analysis, for example, shows two in five parts of England will have more primary-age pupils than places for them in 2016/17. This increases to more than half in 2017/18 and three in five in 2018/19.
That in no small part is simply down to central government policy failure; despite having an obligation to provide school places, councils are not allowed to open new schools and the only new schools can be academies or free schools.
These youngsters are the taxpayers, citizens and visionaries of tomorrow and if schools need to be built, councils should be able to do so. No small part of that pressure on places is migration-driven however and other services face the same situation; failure to recognise this or dub those who point out as racist is a pitfall into which a lot of people seem to have fallen; the risk/reward debate needs to be had.
(I personally think that within reason, a boom in primary school numbers is great; most western European nations face real demographic challenges as their populations age and I love the cultural diversity I’m increasingly seeing at my children’s school…)
UCL’s study late last year meanwhile found that European migrants made a net contribution of £20 billion to UK public finances between 2000 and 2011. But it’s not all good news and that straightforward is it?
Swoops on nurses and doctors from countries like the Philippines or eastern Europe could be argued to be immoral; tax payers in those nations/their governments have paid for their training, only to see a brain drain because western governments have poor incentives or long-term planning in place to ensure training at home is producing the right numbers of skilled staff needed.
In short, this is a tremendously complicated debate. And by failing to really have it in the political sphere openly, reasonably and in a spirit of genuine enquiry as to what is best for the country in the short, medium and long term, we have helped create a kneejerk political force expressing itself in the crassest possible form; that of race.
I appreciate that this is a long and yet not altogether crystal clear response, but I don’t think the “immigration” debate should be held in the binary opposites of “for” and “against” immigration and immigrants.
I greatly admire people who arrive in England with nearly nothing (or with more; they’re fine too!) and pull themselves up by the bootstraps through hard work and ingenuity; I think cultural diversity doesn’t have to mean moral relativism, I think a desperately sad and disturbing refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has been caused in no small part by abysmal British foreign policy, including our part in destabilising Libya and Iraq and the ongoing failure to push aggressively for a diplomatic settlement to the conflict in Syria.
I have mixed race children and I want them to grow up in a tolerant, diverse Britain. But do I think “open door” European migration is 100%, unquestionably a good thing and should be sacrosanct and exempt from critical debate? No. More research and discussion needs to take place as to the extent to which a population can swell over a short period without that causing social and economic stretch marks.
In the meantime, I think it’s great that people can pursue their dreams here, that British companies can get access to hard-working people, that universities can attract bright talent and that our otherwise aging population is getting an influx of energetic youngsters. This should not be the end of the discussion however, just the beginning.
Sorry that was so long Oli. I’ll try to answer your questions on solar, land use and Manston in another reply that I promise to keep to less than 100 words per answer!