Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Opening the borders

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has been strongly attacked by his own side for suggesting that the world is moving inexorably towards open borders.  It’s another sad reflection, considering the internationalist idealism of the founders of the Labour Party, that those arguing for open borders are regarded as aberrant, whilst those arguing for controls over the free movement of people are regarded as mainstream.  It’s perfectly possible, of course, that those supporting strong borders are merely reflecting what they see as being the opinion of the electorate – but that’s an even sadder reflection on the state of the modern Labour Party and how far it has strayed from its early ideals.  And pandering to conventional opinion rather than being willing to challenge it serves only to strengthen it.
In the circumstances, suggesting that open borders are the way of the future was a brave statement by John McDonnell.  I think he’s actually right.  The world is changing around us in ways which not everyone will like; but not liking something doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  In particular, modern communications technology makes it easier for people to compare and contrast their own way of life with that elsewhere.  It’s too easy to see the refugee crisis as a product of war or famine alone.  Whilst those are certainly factors, concentrating too heavily on those ignores the wider economic issues leading to large scale migration.
‘Economic migrants’, as governments like to refer to them, are ‘merely’ escaping poverty, rather than death through famine or war; but poverty causes death too.  It can be slower and less dramatic, but poverty – even relative poverty – affects longevity as well.  And there can be no doubting the disparity in the quality of life between the rich countries and the poor.  It is surely entirely understandable that people seeing a better quality of life elsewhere will attempt to seek it out, rather than accept their current state.
Of course, whilst modern communications make the disparities more visible, and the comparative ease of travel (compared to the situation just a few decades ago) facilitates greater mobility, neither of those is the underlying cause of the disparity.  That comes down to centuries of differential rates of economic development; and we should never forget that the greater pace of development in the richer parts of the world was for a very long time underpinned by exploiting the resources of the rest.  The whole history of colonialism and capitalism is about the transfer of wealth from some areas to others.  In this case, I’m talking about the richer and poorer countries across the world, but similar processes have also operated internally within the richer countries.
Add in the likely effects of a changing climate, and we are going to see even more mass migration in the future, and people ignoring borders in the process.  There are two potential responses to the situation.  The first is the stance taken by conventional politicians, which is all about building fences and obstacles, pulling up the drawbridge as it were, to stop people moving around.  That’s proving hard enough now.  If the numbers continue to grow, it is likely to become unsustainable without resorting to the increasing use of force.  The other is the stance taken by McDonnell, which is that we need to start thinking about the consequences and how we prepare for them.
It’s not an easy or a comfortable question to be asking ourselves.  How do we protect and sustain accepted cultures and customs if the population demographic is changing?  How do we deal with the economic and social consequences?  Being afraid, for whatever reason, to even ask such questions is part of the problem, but the result – trying to pretend that we can continue to hoard wealth in some parts of the world whilst denying it to others – simply won’t work for very long.  If the critics of McDonnell succeed in silencing debate on the question, we’ll all be the losers in the longer term.


Democritus said...

The dilemma for the left is that completely unrestricted immigration is logically incompatible with a welfare state based founded on universalist principles. Mr Farage is simply wrong to state that the NHS has become a World Health Service, but he is right that even a nation as rich as ours cannot afford for it to become so.

McDonnell ultimately I expect looks forward to the nation state withering away as global socialism knocks away its reasons for being. He's right though about the long run impossibility of halting the flow from Africa and the Middle East by any measures short of sinking the boats with migrants still on them - which would be outright murder. Even putting troops on the ground in Syria and Libya to impose a 'peace' settlement won't stem the numbers of people we describe as 'economic migrants' who are willing to risk everything to reach what they understandably regard as the land of milk and honey.

If we can't practically prevent illegal immigration (and in a purely UK context, given the limited number of entry points the lid probably can be kept on for far longer that is practical in continental Europe or the USA) then we face the prospect of a permanent and increasing semi-invisible underclass of illegals unable to access basic public services for fear of deportation and only able to work in the black economy with all the exploitation and wider social consequences that would follow ... as Obama and others in the States have realised it's better to give illegals a path to eventual citizenship that just to ignore the issue given that it won't go away.

It seems to me as though the level of social solidarity that existed in Britain after WW2 and led in 1947/8 to the creation of a 'cradle to grave' Welfare State redistributing wealth essentially in accordance with need and between the generations is on its' last legs. Immigration may have played its part, but so have many other social trends and in retrospect its possibly the 'great generation' who may have been exceptional as a consequence of the experiences they lived through. I'm sorry to say I see us drifting ever more in the direction of insurance / contribution based social policy (which it can be argued was the original intent behind national insurance before Lloyd George essentially abolished the fund to pay for the Great War) as in the US for example, with the state providing little beyond minimal safety net services free at point of use.

The more I think about it, the more I come to agree (I think) with McDonnell that the traditional Wesphalian nation state is a hopelessly outdated means of tackling the challenges of the 21st Century - it's just very hard to envisage what lies beyond or how we might go about getting there, particularly given the difficulties currently facing the EU project ...

John Dixon said...

Whilst I don't agree with all the points you make here, I agree with much of it. The final paragraph, in particular, echoes the point that I was making in the post. Traditional approaches to borders are being superceded by events, and McDonnell was right to draw attention to it. I don't know quite what the alternative might be at this stage either - but ignoring the changes and trying to pretend that everything can simply carry on simply won't work.