Global mobility: an inescapable reality

The UK will never come to terms with the modern day reality of migration if our only approach to it is to impose ever tighter restrictions. We are increasingly a nation shaped by migration in all its forms, and part of our future nation building has to involve embracing this reality in a positive spirit, says Tim Finch
Tim Finch
6 March 2011

At a recent seminar in Britain, a number of leading migration academics expressed the view that ‘evidence-based policy making’ is often a myth. Their argument was that while politicians and policy makers in Western democracies say they want rigorous research to underpin their decisions, they are too often swayed by popular sentiment and indeed their own prejudices. This frustrates migration experts who have long concluded that the evidence largely shows that migration is a good thing for developed economies and societies, and that therefore Western governments should adopt an open approach to it. Instead these governments ignore that evidence and introduce increasingly restrictive policies.

This line of argument is interesting because in a recently published collection of essays a number of former ministers and special advisors from Britain’s Labour government suggested that a  broadly pro-migration position, not dissimilar to that of the frustrated academics, prevailed for too long in shaping policy during their thirteen years in power. Under this thesis, New Labour remained true to ‘evidence-based policy making’ to an extent that was positively reckless for a party seeking re-election. The measurable economic benefits of migration won out despite the fact that the opinion polls clearly showed the British public were not convinced. 

However, it was not just the macro-evidence from the Treasury which accounts for this stance. As writers like the former ministerial special advisors Ed Owen and Matt Cavanagh make clear, as important were the progressive values of many of those making policy during the New Labour years in Britain. Values and evidence forged a strong nexus and it was this which meant a relatively open and liberal approach was maintained despite its obvious lack of electoral utility.

It is hard to reconcile these two divergent analyses of Labour’s record on immigration, but if a new progressive position is to be forged in the UK and more widely, one which can credibly counter the growing ascendency of rampant restrictionism, then it is important to try.

For a start, there is clearly some generosity in the insider account of Labour’s approach in power. The party’s progressive values only took it so far. Some tough measures against asylum seekers were introduced early on and these increasingly set the tone for later policies towards other migrants. Second, the Labour leadership did tack more and more towards public opinion, while never suggesting that they had really taken the trouble to understand ordinary people’s concerns. These shifts, forced by the pressure of events and the often hysterical media environment, meant that Labour’s position on migration seemed to become increasingly incoherent. It was trying to be tough and populist to placate one set of demands put upon it; and progressive and rationalist to satisfy opposing pressures.

But, of course, being criticised from both sides, though uncomfortable, is often a sign that you are in a good place: the middle ground. ippr has long argued that this is where Labour roughly ended up by the time it left office in May 2010. Its problem was that it had not been able to develop a clear articulation of this position or set out how it was consistent with progressive values. Moreover, it had taken too long to get there, and faced too many problems along the way. The popular notion that Labour had messed up on immigration had taken root and there was almost nothing it could do or say by the end that would convince people otherwise.

In some ways, this was unlucky, because in fact the policy architecture and the apparatus of migration management which Labour had in place by the final years of its time in government were meeting public demands. The problem was the public had not caught up with the changes. In fact, visa management and border security arrangements are now much improved. The Points Based System for managing economic migration – modeled on the Australian system - is sensible and fair. The asylum determination process still needs reforms and is scarred by injustices such as the lack of adequate legal representation and the arbitrary use of detention, but it too is in much better shape than before. Enforcement capacity and return policy is another area where improvements are needed, but again it is a question of building on steady progress already made.

Other countries struggling with immigration do not look on the UK as a state which has singularly failed to tackle the issue. By the time the new coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came to power, the old criticisms that the Home Office and the UK Border Agency in ‘chaos’ and immigration ‘out of control' were ringing rather hollow. What the new government did find, however, was that immigration levels to the UK remain very high. This was confirmed in the latest figures which showed that annual net immigration was back above 200,000 again, despite the continuing sluggishness of the UK economy. Estimated net long-term immigration to the UK in the year to March was 210,000, a 45 per cent increase on the year to March 2009. Much of the rise is due to a decrease in emigration (down 14 per cent) rather than any significant increase in immigration (up 2 per cent), but even so, the 2008/2009  dip in migration now looks like something of a blip. The more recent data rather undermines my (over) confident assertion in a previous article on these pages in August that immigration numbers would carry on falling without the need for a damaging cap.

Now the cap has been introduced along with related plans to tighten entry for foreign students, we shall see if these new measures deliver the drop in immigration numbers that most people in this country want to see. Two authoritative reports in the run up to the unveiling of the government’s plans, the first by the Home Affairs committee and the second by Home Office’s own Migration Advisory Committee showed in their different ways that reductions in numbers could be achieved, but at an economic price.  Moreover, given the global forces which continue to drive international migration, the Coalition is going to have to make sure that its capacity to police and enforce immigration controls remains high. Indeed additional investment will almost certainly be needed at a time when public spending is under extreme pressure. More to the point, as Faiza Shaheen has written on these pages, it is questionable whether such tough policies make any sense beyond the narrow aim of meeting the demands of public opinion. 

A soon-to-be-published ippr report on irregular immigration in the UK has found that despite much increased efforts to stop illegal entry, and to encourage and enforce return, the irregular population remains substantial. Simply put, if people are desperate to come here, if there is work for them to do if they succeed in getting in, and if they do not cooperate with the authorities, an immigration regime, even quite a strict one, struggles to cope. Of course the UK could tackle the issue by abandoning the idea of being an open society and a global trading nation, with a respect for human rights and international norms. But despite the strong anti-immigration sentiment in the UK, moving towards being an isolated and impoverished police state as the price of radically reducing immigration levels is surely a step too far for all but an extreme right wing fringe.

However, the British public clearly does want effective control and management of migration flows. People have come, grudgingly, to accept free movement with the European Union. But there are special factors at play here:  the EU is defined regional area, with converging economies and a developing public sense that the benefits of free internal movements are reciprocal. The relative success of free movement within the EU, while providing an encouraging template for the future, does not argue for throwing open the doors to the rest of the world. To do so would be destabilising and would jeopardise hard won gains. Rather, the progressive default position in the UK, as elsewhere, is rightly a selective system, with transparent and fair rules, which allows in the migrants our economy needs – and keeps out those it doesn’t. Of course, alongside such a system for economic migration, the richer nations should be generous in fulfilling our international obligations to the world’s refugees and sensitive to already settled migrants who want to bring in family members – but these flows too should be managed.

That said, beyond a well managed system, the answer to reducing - or at least mitigating the negative impacts of - immigration lies not in more immigration policy instruments, but in reforms to our economic model. David Goodhart and I argue that the UK economy has become ‘addicted’ to immigration. (For those who would prefer a softer word, ‘over reliant’ will serve.) At both ends of the labour market, high skilled and unskilled, we have sectors which seem unable to cope if they do not have a ready supply of migrants. The challenge therefore is to do much more to equip the domestic workforce, including the many hundreds of thousands of recent migrants now settled here, to take up the opportunities that renewed growth will offer. Business will have to do its bit too – accepting that that it has a duty to the national workforce, even if that means contributing towards increased training and better pay and conditions. This is not to argue for protectionism, but rather to suggest that if globalisation is to flourish and command public support it needs to be more sensitive to domestic workforces who have too often lost out in the past to the interests of big business.

However, even if we can re-orientate our economy in these ways we will continue to need – and want – migrants both to fill gaps in our economy and provide their special entrepreneurial drive and diversity. We must make sure that the British electorate better understand that in the 21st century global mobility is an inescapable reality, but also desirable and beneficial for this country in the long run. When the world economy picks up, more and more of British people will want to study or work abroad, to have the option of spending a few years in an exciting or exotic place, or retiring to the sun. The other side of this bargain is learning to accept with less angst and more grace that people will move into the UK to fulfil the same natural instincts and to take up economic opportunities here. There is no going back to the fixed, mono-cultural communities of the past.

That is not to say of course that in a more mobile world all notions of belonging, community and nation are just blown away. Pioneering organisations like London Citizens have shown that new migrants can in fact be keen participants in re-energising communities and making them more active and participative. But thinkers like Maurice Glasman are also ensuring that more notice is being taken, including on the Left, of the need to respect, and not ridicule, conservative notions of community among the white working class and other sections of society who have not been convinced by the liberal orthodoxies of recent years. Many people do, quite understandably, feel threatened by the sense of destabilisation and flux that rapid and high levels of migration bring. The fact is that British people will have to learn to adjust to the levels of mobility that the UK is going to face in the future. But at the same, many progressives are now realising that more help is needed to help communities with economic, social and cultural adjustments. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with taking a robust approach to migrant integration. Host countries should, without squeamishness or shame, make not just requests, but demands, of newcomers that they adjust to traditional values and norms.    

After 13 years in which a progressive Labour government in the UK struggled so painfully with immigration, and at a time when the new Government is finding the issue just as difficult and contentious, the ground for optimism about a better future may seem shaky. But in fact the lessons of the last decade or so have provided Britain with the makings of a sound template for developing a balanced position on migration, which could unite rather than divide.  At its heart should be a self confident system of immigration control and management in the national interest. However, countries like the UK will never come to terms with the modern day reality of migration if our only approach to it is to impose ever tighter restrictions.  Personally, I have always been sceptical of the argument that Britain is a ‘nation of immigrants’ in the same way that the United States or Australia are. Immigration is certainly not a founding myth of ‘old countries’ like ours. But we are increasingly a nation shaped by migration in all its forms, and part of our future nation building has to involve embracing this reality in a positive spirit.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData