The first concerned migrants who travelled half way across the world to seek a better life, and the second was a story about, well, migrants travelling half way across the world to seek a better life. The first group were successful - they planted their language and culture on faraway shores and are to be celebrated; the second intended merely to integrate with the existing culture and language in the country of their destination and find work, but they have mostly failed and are to be reviled.
Unfair comparison? In some ways, yes, of course it is. Things were different 150 years ago. But the core issue is that, in both cases, we are looking at people who felt that their situation in their home country was sufficiently desperate that they were ready to risk everything to try and build a new and better life elsewhere.
It’s not often that I agree with anything that the Tory MP for Monmouth says but last week was a minor exception, when he said about the way to prevent immigration, “Fundamentally, what we need to do is take away the incentive to come…”. I don’t really agree with him that migration is something which necessarily needs to be prevented, but in principle I agree that removing the incentive is the best way of managing levels of migration. We do, though, have very different views about what the ‘incentive to come’ might be. He seems to see it as being poor border control, French weakness and a too-soft system of benefits, whereas I see it as global economic inequality. And one of the few certainties in life is that he has no real intention of tackling that one.
As for Labour, well their acting leader has demanded that an invoice be sent to France for the costs incurred by the UK as a result of that country’s failings, whilst Jack Straw has called for the abolition of the Schengen agreement and the reimposition of border controls across the European continent. Just as well that, according to them, they’re a party of internationalists. I dread to think what ‘narrow nationalists’ might have suggested.
The position taken by Leanne Wood for Plaid is more enlightened and humane, but even that seems to be starting from the view that migration is a ‘problem’ which needs to be ‘controlled’. That’s a difference of degree rather than of kind. No mainstream politicians seem to be willing to start from the position that all people should be free to live and work wherever they choose, and that the ‘problem’ is about adapting to the implications of that freedom rather than denying it to people. Freedom of movement is something which seems to be restricted to “us” and not allowed to “them”.
In a globally connected world, it’s very easy for people to see that they can make a better life for themselves elsewhere. And who can blame them for seeking that? Building barriers, fences, and blockades might look like a solution to some, but it is nothing more than a short term way of protecting the relative wealth of some parts of the world from people in other parts of the world by locking them out.
The rational long term approach is to redistribute the world’s wealth more fairly. And given that much of the wealth of the developed world came from exploiting the rest of the world in the first place, it’s an entirely reasonable objective to set. But I won't hold my breath. I expect to see the UK’s political parties continuing to argue about who can build the strongest barriers, and keep out the largest number of migrants. Freedom of movement is an alien concept to them when applied to ‘others’.