I have posted a few times on the idea of freedom of movement as being, in principle, a right available to all rather than just a privileged few, and one response which I often get is that allowing freedom of movement to all would lead to even more mass migration than the world is currently seeing. It’s an argument that I understand, but it’s an argument based on practicalities rather than on principle. The fact that treating something as a right might cause problems isn’t an argument for saying that people don’t have that right; it’s an argument for considering what those problems are and how they might be tackled.
People choose to migrate for a number of reasons. (I use the word ‘choose’ rather loosely here; in war-torn countries, or those ravaged by famine and disease, it doesn’t look much like a choice.) One way or another, the basic driver for most migrants is the search for a better life. That is as true for the rich person migrating to a tax haven as it is for the poor African seeking a route to Europe; the difference is that ‘better’ means something rather different at the extremes. Ultimately, the fact that a better life is available elsewhere is down to differences in economic wealth across the world; global inequality is the main driver. The question, in terms of policy, is how we respond to that; and there are broadly only two possible options.
The first is the one being advocated by virtually all parties in virtually all the world’s wealthy states: pull up the drawbridge, control the borders, select how many (and which) immigrants are allowed in, treat freedom of movement as a privilege only for the few – in essence, to adapt a phrase from another context, “what we have we hold”. The consequences of that are what we are seeing daily – dispossessed, desperate people risking their lives to travel illegally where they can’t go legally. And I’m sure that I’m not alone in believing that this is, ultimately, a line which cannot be held, even if we wanted to.
The second is to acknowledge that inequality is the underlying cause and address that inequality. In essence, that means a deliberate, planned, and managed transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots on a global scale. The UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income in aid barely scratches the surface of what is required, and that’s even truer when at least some of that aid from the richer countries is then spent back in the donor countries. It is unlikely to be a popular policy as things stand – we are already seeing people talking about cutting the foreign aid budget because ‘charity begins at home’. I can understand that view as well when there are so many in our own society who are struggling with the basics; but isn’t that, also, the product of inequality, albeit on a more local basis?
At a European level, this is what the structural funds from which Wales has received large sums (even if we have failed to use them wisely) are all about – trying to spread wealth more evenly across the EU. The essence of much of the Brexit campaign was to reject the idea that rich countries (like the UK) should contribute more in order to achieve that aim, and one can legitimately argue that the people of Wales rejected the whole concept of redistribution (although that hasn’t stopped our politicians from trying to claim an exemption for Wales). One of the tragedies of politics in Wales was seeing those who have most to benefit from an attempt at equalisation throwing their lot in with the privileged whose starting point is that the rich have an absolute right to increase their share of wealth at the expense of others. Sometimes, turkeys really do vote for Christmas, it seems.The EU vote in Wales also served to underline how big the task in front of us is if we want to move to an approach based on spreading wealth rather than raising walls. If those who would benefit from more equality reject it in favour of the proposition that the rich should hold on to what they have, what chance of persuading the population as a whole to a position of greater altruism in favour of the world’s poor on an even larger scale? Yet for those of us who believe that building walls and controlling borders is the wrong way to go, that is the task facing us. We have to make the argument for greater equality, both at home and worldwide. But where are the politicians with the courage even to attempt that, rather than lamely fall in behind the privileged and the prejudiced?