This is why restricting migration to skilled workers can't work for Britain
If we want our economy to grow, and for all of us to become richer, we need more people from abroad to live and work here
In the end, the great argument about migration comes down to this: race and demographics. We all know it, we may as well confront it. There are – and some of us have to get used to this – many in this country who do not care whether migration or the EU makes the national income bigger or smaller – they just want immigration stopped. Now. For them, the argument ends there.
It shouldn’t, of course. Without migration, when a country has a low birth rate – as almost all advanced western economies do – the working population starts to shrink alarmingly. The “dependency ratio” goes up. It means there are fewer workers to support the old. There are lower tax revenues than otherwise; fewer people willing to work in hospitals and care homes at affordable wages (especially given the reluctance of the indigenous workforce to take on “dirty jobs” and to pay higher taxes), and a generally lower level of spending in the economy, which is bad for economic growth.
Everyone suffers when migration is switched off – higher taxes, less cash for public services, fewer people there to work in them. Robots and skilled Britons are not ready or unavailable to take up the slack. You will simply wait longer for the nurse to turn up, because he or she will have gone back to Portugal or Slovakia.
When Nigel Farage says that you don’t see old or disabled people queueing up to come to the UK, he is right. Migrants are usually younger, fitter, harder-working, more adventurous, entrepreneurial and more productive. Always have been. They are not crooks and thieves and rapists, as Trump says (ignoring the fact that his granddad, mum and wife were migrants). Even allowing for small effects on wage levels in some occupations, on property values and rents in some local housing markets and some extra strain on public services – all of which could be addressed with targeted central government action – there is a net benefit to the public finances and to the wider economy. Fact.
Migration is good. We cannot avoid it, in fact.
The other day, the populist Italian politician Matteo Salvini (deputy prime minister of Italy), argued that he wanted Italians to go and have more bambinos like they used to, and then Italy wouldn’t need migrants. Well, I wonder how he is going to force his fellow Italians to get into the bedroom and start mating. Mussolini used to dish out medals to champion mothers who had unfeasible numbers of children to produce his modern imperial Rome. I doubt they’d be willing to go through non-stop labour for just for a tin star with Salvini’s face on it. Once again he makes Italy a global joke. Yet there are some in Britain who hold similarly clownish views.
You might say that I would be all for migration, being a product of a more recent wave of migration. Well, many of us are the products of various waves of migration: People with names such as “Farage” or “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson” or "Priti Patel". There is no qualitative difference between us, except some of us don’t want to pull the ladder up after us. The British are – apart from a few with pure bloodlines going back before the Norman Conquest – just that: Immigrants. Even the most racist and xenophobic would concede that the British do not have a monopoly on the best minds or the thickest muscles. Nor that they possess some uniquely strong work ethic. Some claim quite the opposite.
If we want our economy to grow, and for all of us to become richer, we need people to come and live and work here. Start businesses too. It is a long lesson of history, and amplified by recent experience. After all, Britain does boast unemployment at a 40-year low, even after what has been an unprecedented number of people moving here from continental Europe and beyond. It is perfectly correct that the scale of immigration from the “new Commonwealth” in the 1950s through to the 1970s – from the West Indies, Indian sub-continent and the East African Asians – was modest compared to the post-2000s movements from east Europe. But look – the UK has never been more economically successful or prosperous. We would be the poorer without mass migration, as we will shortly find out.
One of the strangest aspects of the current debate about migration, if I can dignify it with such a term, is the consensus that everything would be OK if Britain only allowed in “skilled” workers and professionals with money – the rich, in other words. No one, according to this world view, wants to prevent Marouane Fellaini or Romelu Lukaku, to name two random Belgians, from entertaining us and enriching the Premier League. But that would be it, just about; a small elite that makes little difference.The rest are just to be shut out, forever.
Indeed, everyone from Farage to the official Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which has reported with proposals for future policy, seems to agree on that. MAC wants to specify classes of skills for which there would be a grading system. If you meet the qualifications then you may come to Britain. If not, then presumably some future government will have to bring back the “hostile environment” policy.
There are variants around the “elite skilled workers only” approach; some favour some overarching cap, with a wide range of numbers attached to it; some, not many, would concede specially favoured status for EU nationals, and/or their families, or not; some would make a sharper distinction between “work permits” and permanent leave to remain on a pathway to becoming British citizens.
Well, that doesn’t work. Migration needs to be substantial enough to shift the nation’s demographics. For some, this might mean lower wages in some jobs. But there are wider benefits, from the lower prices and lower taxes, because care homes, hospitals, public transport, building work, plumbing, hotels, restaurants, taxis and much else are cheaper to run and fund. Lower prices and taxes mean more money left over to spend on other things instead.
Migration means that the British can, as they have done, avoid “dirty jobs” – a common enough phenomenon in every rich nation, where migrants come to clean offices, drive taxis and wait on tables. In past times the Irish, Italians, Pakistanis and Poles came to work in our factories, mills and sweat shops, and, of course, hospitals. We had internal migration too – from Scotland, Wales and the north to the booming Midlands and south, between the wars, say, and from countryside to towns. It is nothing new. No economy advances without migration, internal and external. Look at stagnant Japan or Italy to see the results of allowing a population to grow old and grey.
Last, I wonder, frankly, how many Leave voters would be happy with substituting mostly white migration from eastern Europe for mostly brown migration from the rest of the world? According to so many of the vox pops we saw in 2016 and since, they voted to get out of the EU because it meant fewer migrants of any colour. Liberalising the rules for visas for Indians and Chinese as part of a wider trade deal, say, would, obviously, be excellent for global Britain, but is that the Brexit so many voted for? Unpleasant as it is, the answer is probably “no”.