Monday, 20 October 2014

Tackling inequality, not immigration

The 19th-century French radical Alexandre Ledru-Rollin probably never said “There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so that I can lead them”.  Many of the best quotes turn out to be less than entirely accurate.  But that doesn’t reduce their value – and in the case of this one it seems a good description of the approach of many contemporary politicians.  The question is not what they believe (even they seem not to know that) but what they think they have to say to get elected.  And in pursuit of that utterly unprincipled aim many of them are prepared to do and say almost anything.
It’s hard to think of a single political issue which better illustrates the point than immigration.  Politicians seem to be falling over themselves to demonstrate that they will be tougher on immigration.  Are they doing it because they believe is right?  I doubt it; it’s more a case of following opinion than of leading at.  But the net effect is to reinforce rather than challenge prejudice.
All of the discussion around immigration seems to start from the perspective that migration is, or should be, a privilege granted only to a few.  And the competition between parties and politicians is about who can keep that number the lowest and set the highest bar for qualification for that privilege.  But what would happen if we stand the principle on its head?  Why not start from the perspective that freedom of movement and residence is not a privilege for a few, but a right for all?  On that basis the the question becomes not to whom the privilege should be granted – which is all the UK’s parties seem able to discuss - but from whom the freedom should be withheld, and on what basis.
There’s a danger of oversimplifying the reasons for migration.  Of course people have different reasons for seeking to move from one country to another, and I wouldn’t want to understate the impact of conflict and famine for instance.  But the one single cause which has the greatest influence on the movement of people is economic inequality; in essence people believe that they can have a better life, a better quality of life, in a country other than their native country.  And responding to that by raising barriers is not only managing the symptoms rather than the cause, it’s also an attempt to embed and perpetuate inequality rather than reduce it.
Freedom of movement as a starting point is hardly populist, although it strikes me that there are plenty of people who, when pressed, believe that they should be free to move and that it’s only other people’s freedom which should be restricted.  But being popular isn’t the same as being honest or principled, and prejudiced opinion can only be changed by challenging it, not by pandering to it.
We live in a world of finite resources.  The world’s population is growing and that population aspires to the living standards of the richest.  There are two possible policy responses to this – the first is to accept that resources need to be shared more fairly, and the second is to create fortresses to protect the haves from the have nots.  Much of the debate about immigration owes more to that second policy position than the first.  But only the first is tenable in the long term.  It is delusional to believe that current levels of inequality can be sustained for the indefinite future, and even more so to believe that it can be sustained by building barriers.


Anonymous said...

If inequality can't be sustained by building barriers why would anyone ever vote for independence?

Or is that your point?

John Dixon said...

Why would anyone think that independence has anything to do with either building barriers or sustaining inequality?