Thursday 30 January 2020

Exporting a problem isn't the same as 'solving' it

One of the problems with referendums is that, in reducing complex questions to very simple ones, they can lead to a situation where there may well be a majority for a particular proposition, but the reasons why that majority voted as they did are many and varied (and, of course, the same applies to the other side).  I don’t doubt that immigration and xenophobia were factors in the EU referendum, but even if most of those opposed to immigration voted to leave, it doesn’t follow that all of those who voted for leave are opposed to immigration.  The government, though, has chosen to behave as though they were, and instead of promoting a reasoned debate around immigration and the reasons for it, has opted to try and implement schemes which appear to be aimed at cutting the numbers.  I say ‘appear’; for all their bluster, I don’t think that people like Johnson are actually convinced that immigration is a problem, nor do I entirely believe that the proposed schemes themselves will reduce numbers – they just want to look as though they are doing something to appeal to that particular group of voters. 
It’s not an enormous surprise to be told this week not only that the EU has never prevented the UK from operating a ‘points-based’ system but also that the UK has actually been operating such a system for years.  Saying it out loud got the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee sacked, but hey, ‘taking back control’.  It’s possible, however, that simply making potential migrants think twice before seeking to come to the UK by increasing the number of bureaucratic hoops which need to be jumped through and tanking the economy will act as deterrents, but that isn’t quite the way that the policy is allegedly intended to work – and those things are likely to deter precisely those that the government says that it wants to attract.  Little will deter those who are simply desperate from trying all means.
I start from the position that, in principle, people should be free to travel, live and work wherever they wish and that it’s for governments to justify why that should exceptionally not be allowed.  (However, it’s clear that many others start from the principle that no-one should be allowed that freedom, and that it is for the individuals themselves to justify why they should be excepted.  The result is that many of those who supported Brexit are not just supporting, but actively demanding, the removal of their own rights.)   But support for the principle isn’t the same thing as arguing either for mass migration or for actively going out and seeking inward migrants.  If, given the freedom, people seek to migrate en masse, we should be looking at why that is the case, and the most usual causes are war, famine, persecution, and economic inequality.  It’s strange, but not really surprising, that most of those opposing mass migration also oppose doing anything about those causes.  Real freedom of movement depends on real equality of opportunity, and there is quite a large overlap between opponents of freedom of movement and opponents of equality.
I’m opposed to the way in which the government is seeking to recruit immigrants selectively to come to the UK, which they do for two reasons.  The first is that we need certain skills in larger numbers than we possess them – doctors, nurses, engineers, and so forth.  And the second is that, with an ageing population, we need more young workers to be paying taxes to support the older members of society.  But both of these point to failures of the economic system under which we live, and my real objection to filling the gap by recruiting migrants is nothing to do with the migrants themselves, it is that we are simply exporting the problem, often to countries which are already poorer than ourselves.  Taking the best-educated, the highest-paid, and the most productive in terms of their working age may solve some of our problems – in the short term at least – but it simply makes other countries’ problems worse.  And that is not good world citizenship.  It is, as Simon Jenkins argued this week, not ethical.
A rich economy which cannot develop the skills it needs amongst its own citizens, and which cannot support its own citizens without continued population growth (either from organic growth or from immigration) is an economy built on sand.  It is not sustainable in the long term, and we need to rethink the way we do things rather than seek to move the problem around.  It was disappointing this week to see the Scottish Government arguing for its own visa system, not on the basis of wanting to be fairer and to implement a different approach, but on the basis of addressing the perceived ‘problem’ of the falling Scottish birth rate.  That’s a ‘problem’ that we need more of, not one to be ‘solved’.  In a world where over-population is a serious and growing problem, a country with a low population density and a falling birth rate has major potential advantages – the question is how to adjust the economy to exploit that opportunity, not see it as a 'problem' to be fixed by moving it somewhere else.


CapM said...

I think immigration did play a significant part in the Referendum. Also that most who voted Leave do expect immigration to be reduced and that probably quite a few who voted Remain think controlling immigration might be one thing in Brexit's favour.

Given this expectation I can only see immigration issue ultimately being addressed in one of two ways.

Either we pay ourselves more in those low paid unattractive jobs resulting in us paying higher costs for goods and services and in tax and we pay more tax to train people in the skills we need.

Or we import low paid workers on fixed contracts who must return to their countries of origin once their contract expires. The Saudi model.

I fear that the second course is more likely to happen than the first and with the support of the electorate.

John Dixon said...

I tend to agree that a way of continuing levels of immigration to meet economic needs is the likeliest outcome. In spite of what the electorate might or might not believe, many of the leading Brexiteers are entirely relaxed about the fact of immigration; their opposition to it is electoral rather than ideological. Whether the route adopted is the one you suggest (i.e. fixed contracts) or whether it will enjoy the "support of the electorate" are, I suspect much more open questions.

CapM said...

I agree that "their" opposition to immigration is electoral not ideological.
However for much of the electorate it is ideological.
We have seen how "their" electoral opposition to EU membership served the electorate's Leave ideology. I imagine that an electoral opposition to immigration could be exploited in the same way. Especially if "their" alternative suggests higher taxes and prices.

John Dixon said...

I broadly agree with both your comments, but there are some open questions still. Would people believe that they would be the ones paying the higher taxes and prices? A characteristic we've seen recently is that people tend to believe that the pain will fall on someone else. And many people probably assume, by now, that anything Johnson says will be a lie anyway. I tend to agree with what you say, but I suppose there's part of me which believes (or maybe merely wants to believe?) that people might eventually stop believing the lies.

CapM said...

A genuine Brexit bonus perhaps!

dafis said...

Failure to address the fundemental skills weaknesses in the British economy/society is a political "crime". Much money has been spent on "training" over the years but the outcomes have been poor to non-existent in many cases. Just a bunch of training "providers" getting rich off the public purse via grants, initiatives etc. Hence the willingness to import skills, especially when their costs were usually lower than the native alternative(where those existed).
Yet another example of the public purse being drained into private coffers with little or nothing to show for the transaction.