“She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour,”
Gordon Brown, 2010
It’s hard to think of a single case in which rhetoric about immigration has earned a politician lasting respect. Enoch Powell, described by Michael Foot as an ‘outstanding (political) personality’ never recovered from his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. He is no longer remembered as the brilliant mind who became a Professor of Greek at the age of 25, nor as a gifted orator and poet of delicacy, but as a vulgar racist. How he must have wished that he had left ‘Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’ untranslated.
Different experiences of immigration
Most British people have largely welcomed immigrants; both economic migrants and refugees. But it is clear that not all share the same experiences of immigration. It is easy to rejoice over immigration when one lives in an area of relatively high employment (like Westminster, funnily enough). The ability to engage a Polish plumber or a Slovak nanny and to be served one’s lunch by a chica guapa in Pret is life enhancing. In other areas of Britain, where the very idea of being able to pay for childcare (or even to find a branch of Pret) is a fantasy, it is a different story. In such places, largely post-industrial towns in the north on England, immigration is seen not as an enrichinment but something that prevents me getting a job or a doctor’s appointment. It is easy, in such places, to come to the conclusion that Britain is ‘full up’. This is something that Polly Toynbee failed to appreciate in her (even for her) condescending article in which she painted ordinary voters as selfish and thick.
The evidence (and here would be a good place) is clear. Immigration, even mass immigration, is, ceteris paribus, good for the economy. But it’s not that simple, of course:
- Even though immigration may be good for the economy as a whole, it does not follow that it is necessarily good for a particular individual at a particular time. Individuals matter; because they are human beings, and because they cast votes.
- While immigration may be good for the economy, there might still be legitimate concerns about the social impact of immigration, or about its pace and degree.
- Economic arguments are notoriously difficult to use in political campaigns. Consider the fact that many people want to raise the top rate of income tax even though it would almost certainly result in less revenue for the treasury. Few politicians are brave (or foolish) enough to talk about the Laffer Curve or Comparative Advantage at hustings.
- Politics is about persuasion. It is not enough to say to people concerned about immigration, “Your fears are misplaced, here are some statistics.” People must feel that their concerns are being listened to — that they are (awful word) ‘stakeholders’.
My Slice of the Cake
The usual reasoning goes like this: In my community there are X school places, Y houses and Z hospital beds, etc. We are tempted to imagine these provisions as like a cake of which we are each given a slice. With every immigrant who arrives, the cake has to be divided between more people and so ‘my’ portion of the cake is made smaller.
The public services that make up the cake are paid for by ‘the government’. In actual fact, governments have no money. The only money a government has to spend is our money: that which we have handed over in tax. True, a government can also borrow to finance spending, but if you think about it, that is just deferred taxation. At the end of the day, the government spends our money on our behalf.
More people therefore also means more taxpayers, thus allowing for a bigger cake. The slice for each person thus remains the same or, in the case of a growing and successful economy, even larger. But it’s not quite that simple either. Some people (e.g. workers) are net contributors to the cake, others (e.g. pensioners) are net consumers. There’s nothing unjust about that, but in the ‘old’ countries of Western Europe a rapidly ageing population and falling birthrate means that an ever-shrinking pool of young workers is having to contribute to the cake with their taxes just to keep it at the same size.
The role of immigrants here is surely too obvious to labour. Economic migrants tend to be young, enterprising and highly motivated. It may be the case that some people come to Britain as ‘benefit tourists’ but that phenomenon would be better addressed by sensible reforms in the welfare system (such as restoring the contributory principle). We need to enable people to understand that the ‘cake’ is actually the economy as a whole and not simply public services. More people means more users of public services, certainly, but it also means more consumers, producers and, crucially, tax-payers. In other words, a bigger cake.
Malthus is Still Wrong
Early in the 1600s, when England and Wales had fewer than 5 million people, John Winthrop left England for Massachusetts because he considered England too crowded. He expressed the wish for the earlier “times when our Country was not pestered with multitude, not overcharged with swarmes of people.”
If Britain is ‘crowded’ and ‘full up’ now, what kind of hell-hole might a more densely populated country be? What if we were as densely populated as Pakistan, Mexico or Yemen?
Well, in fact, all three countries are all rather more sparsely populated than the UK, so whatever their travails, it seems that having ‘too many’ people cannot the reason. Britain has around 660 people per square mile. Imagine how awful if would be if our population not only doubled but even tripled! Again, you might be surprised. Singapore has around 18,000 people per square mile (triple the UK figure), but its GDP per capita is higher, and it performs as well or better by most other measures, such as life expectancy. I admit that Singapore can feel a little claustrophobic, but it serves to show that population density alone is no indicator of poverty or economic catastrophe.
Immigration and Brexit
My reason for wanting the UK to leave the EU is this:
The EU is undemocratic and its almost blind commitment to an increasingly outdated model of federalism is now a real cause of harm to the continent (think of Greece, or youth unemployment in Spain not to mention the growth of far-right parties like Golden Dawn [Greece] and Jobbik [Hungary]).
There are some aspects of the EU that I regard as positive. Cooperation between nations is in general a good thing, and the Single Market and Freedom of Movement should be welcomed by anyone on the political right. Yet even these (both of which non-EU Norway enjoys) are not reasons to overlook the democratic deficit of the EU. I’m an Aristotelian, not a Utilitarian.
On the other hand, I do not deny that immigration is an issue that politicians need to engage with. There seems little doubt that UKIP gained so many traditionally Labour votes at the last election because they, not Labour, were listening to people’s concerns and not belittling them. Voters in Bolton and Burnley raised genuine concerns about their local communities and were told by their Guardian-reading MPs that they were wrong; that immigration was an unalloyed good for Britain. Instead, UKIP seemed to agree with them in regarding immigration as a bad thing.
The truth, in the real world of governing Britain, is somewhere between the two. Classical (economic) Liberals like me are in favour of a liberal immigration policy, but politicians cannot live in the world of the think tank — they only govern with consent. Whatever our immigration policy is to be, it is important that the people are onside. The experience of the European-but-not-EU Swiss is instructive (and hopeful) here. They voted to limit ‘mass immigration’ in 2014 but recent reports suggest that public opinion is moving in the other direction as people begin to realise the vital role that immigrant workers play in the economy.
Most people are neither stupid nor racist, they simply have the same concerns as every other human being in the world — Will I have a job? Is there a school place for my child? If I am sick can I see a doctor and will there be a bed in hospital for me? Moreover, they want to be listened to by their elected representatives.
So, full marks to UKIP for listening to these concerns, but gamma-double-minus for exploiting them, and exploiting them in a way which can only stoke xenophobia. It’s one thing to listen to people’s concerns, it’s quite another to exacerbate them. The approach of pompous pro-EU politicians who dismiss democracy as ‘populism’ is condescending and despicable. However implying that drastically reducing or even halting immigration would be a good thing for the economy, and therefore the country, is hardly better.
The ‘fairer immigration from the Commonwealth’ line won’t quite wash, partly because it’s based on an arbitrary distinction between classes of immigrant that would have us believe it’s all about Indian doctors versus Romanian beggars (rather than, say, illiterate subcontinental spouses versus Spanish graduates). Then there is the talk of ‘points-based’ systems. One problem here is that it will probably be the government that will set quotas and governments tend not to have a good record in managing the economy. One can reasonably predict that big business will lobby successfully for quotas of the kind of immigrants they need/want, leaving small businesses to pick up the scraps.
What’s the Question on the Ballot?
I suspect that most people for whom (reducing) immigration is the main issue have already decided to vote for Brexit. The only issue is therefore getting that vote out of the day. There remains a significant proportion of the electorate who are still to make up their minds. How likely are they to be convinced by ever more alarmist messages about ‘uncontrolled immigration’?
The disingenuous message from UKIP (and some within Vote Leave) has been that a vote for Brexit is a vote for a particular immigration policy. It is not. That’s not on the ballot paper. A vote to leave is just that: a mandate for the government to cancel our membership of a dysfunctional and undemocratic customs union with illusions of supra-national grandeur. The message, instead, should have been the more honest one: that a vote to leave is to repatriate power to our own shores.
It’s a win-win from a campaigning point of view. Imagine encountering a voter who wants to see immigration limited. You can honestly tell him or her that such a thing is impossible while we remain a member of the EU. If we leave then it will be a matter for future UK governments whom they elect. If you encounter, instead, a wavering voter concerned about the anti-immigration rhetoric of UKIP/Leave, then the reply is the same. In voting for Brexit they are not voting to ban or even necessarily reduce immigration. They are not electing UKIP (or Vote Leave). A vote to leave is not a vote for Vote Leave. Immigration policy will thereafter be a matter for the UK government.
In the short term, let’s say this side of the next general election, I expect little to change. I hope that we minimise economic risk by entering into an EEA/EFTA relationship with the EU as quickly as possible. But UKIP, the Tories, Labour, and the rest will all have proposals and their own visions about how that relationship will develop over time. That’s where we, the electorate, come in. Having taken back our own control as voters, we will be able to send a clear message to our parliamentary representatives in 2020, 2025 and beyond. General elections will (or should!) become more exciting and engaging. Previously they were concerned about only those issues that the behemoth of the EU allowed us to decide upon. In the future they will be about our relationship with Europe and the world. And yes, that includes immigration.
Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how, in the event of a Leave vote, David Cameron would feel able to continue as Prime Minister (though I’d be happy for him to remain — no pun intended). The next Tory leader would be mindful of Gordon Brown’s lame-duck premiership and might want to go to the country very quickly. There would be no reason not to.Unlike the Swiss, we are not a country that feels comfortable with referendums. I expect the result (either way) to be close. So if the referendum itself is not to become a point of contention, it would do no harm to translate it into an electoral mandate. UKIP’s very raison d’être will have disappeared and the Labour Party is already in disarray. As long as the Conservatives univocally and unambiguously accepted the mandate for Brexit (assuming that outcome), then they will only stand to increase their majority (picking up former UKIP voters and disenchanted Labour supporters who voted Leave). They would also win themselves time (5 full years) to work on building civil service capacity and getting the best possible settlement with the EU. For a government elected on a clear Brexit manifesto, triggering (Lisbon) Article 50 could easily wait for a year or so, until after the French and German elections.
There will probably be some who will demand that the UK leave the EU yesterday, but it has taken 40 years for us to become intertwined with the EU in a legislative Gordian Knot. Those of us campaigning for Brexit want to see that knot unpicked, but slicing it through like Alexander did is not the answer. That leaves you with a pile of useless scraps of twine, useful for nothing. The statesmanlike option is to spend time (quite a long time if necessary) carefully untangling and straightening out our relationship in a calm and pragmatic manner. That may well mean that some issues (like the ability to sign trade deals with other nations) are resolved sooner than others (like freedom of movement). Some fruits of Brexit may be almost immediate, others may take years — perhaps decades — to ripen. We should of course learn from other countries (like Norway and Switzerland) that are in Europe but outside the EU.
One factor which will make the task of withdrawing from the EU particularly sensitive and complex is the fact that the UK has a land border with the EU — between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Leaving the EU will inevitably have implications for cross border traffic (of people and goods) and any changes cannot be rushed. Unlike the border in la Manche, the border that runs from Lough Foyle to Carlingford Lough is highly politically significant. Few people commute daily between Calais and Canterbury; between Dundalk and Newry, plenty do.
Brexit, if it comes to pass, will not be easy. There will be no shortcuts or magic bullets. On the other hand, we should not believe the Remainers, who say that Brexit is impossible; but neither should we listen to those Brexiteers who would have us believe that Brexit can be done and dusted in a year or two (let alone in a day), for that way madness lies.
All of us who are campaigning for Brexit owe a debt of gratitude to David Cameron, who agreed to hold a referendum and has kept his promise, and also (though it grieves me to say it) to Nigel Farage, who has worked tirelessly to ensure that we got any referendum at all. It would be a cruel and sad irony indeed if the narcissistic campaigning of immigration-obsessives caused Brexit to fall at the final hurdle. However, two weeks before the referendum, that is my fear — the issue of immigration, appallingly exploited as an issue by Farage and his acolytes, far from winning the referendum for Brexit, will lose it.