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Immigration and the cup of eternal life
Can we keep the country eternally young?
The Times cartoon from Tuesday said a lot. Depicting a huddle of old white people angrily pointing at a dark-skinned nurse helping an elderly patient, the image no doubt spoke personally to many readers who have a parent relying on care workers, or face the same terrifying prospect themselves in the near future.
Morten Morland’s drawing was a commentary on Monday’s launch of the New Conservatives, a group of Tory MPs proposing to cut net migration from its current 606,000 to 240,000 by 2024, with reductions in visas for care staff and student numbers, and a rise in the minimum salary threshold. The case was laid out here by Miriam Cates, considered the rising star of the group.
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It is not a wildly radical proposal, indeed it is what Boris Johnson promised in his 2019 manifesto and some way off the ‘tens of thousands’ suggested by David Cameron at the start of these 13 lost years. Nevertheless, Downing Street rejected the idea, stating that existing immigration policies were ‘striking the right balance’ between the needs of the labour market and its aim of reducing numbers.
It was also reported that ‘a former Secretary of State said the New Conservatives’ decision to focus on social care was “ridiculous” because the service is highly dependent on foreign workers.’ The anonymous politician told PoliticsHome: ‘They are frustrated by the failure to deal with illegal migration but they do that by lashing out and clobbering legal migration, which only hurts the economy.’
God forbid the Tories do anything to hurt the economy; they’re all about ‘the right balance’ and nothing says moderation like that ‘goldilocks zone’ of 600,000+ annual net migration into a densely populated country with stagnant wages and a housing crisis. (Besides which, social care is not exactly ‘highly dependent on foreign workers’, 85 per cent of care staff being British.)
It is hardly surprising that some MPs have broken cover on the issue; public concern over immigration tends to track migration numbers pretty well — even if people’s idea of actual numbers and demography can be wildly off. It rose steadily over the Blair years, but there is often a lag as the voters become aware of the trends (and media interest picks up). Until late last year there certainly was a widespread perception that immigration was down, but now the issue is catching up with the Tories as the sheer scale of post-Brexit numbers becomes obvious; a clear majority of British voters think immigration is too high, as well as a plurality of Labour and Remain voters.
It goes without saying that this is not what people were expecting when they voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. As late as his 2021 Party Conference speech the then prime minister declared that ‘we are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills, and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration… The answer is to control immigration, to allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs.’
Instead, as Matt Goodwin summarised it, Johnson ‘scrapped the cap on work visas. He loosened salary and qualification requirements for somebody to qualify as a skilled worker. He allowed skilled workers to remain indefinitely in the UK. He lowered the salary threshold required for them to do so. He ruled employers no longer have to demonstrate their jobs cannot be done by British workers. And he reintroduced the post-study work visa, allowing international students who completed their degree in Britain to remain for two or three years before then switching onto the skilled worker route if they find a job.’
Despite continual promises to cut numbers, more people came to Britain over the first 12 years of Tory rule than arrived under Labour between 1997 and 2010. And those numbers continue: the Office for National Statistics forecasts that another 5.6 million people will come to Britain over the next decade while 3.4 million will leave.
Migration may not return to its early 2010s salience because more urgent problems - the cost of food, housing, wages - are far too acute. But it has risen hugely in importance, and the proportion of voters naming it as one of their most pressing issues has gone from 15% in the post-Brexit period to 35%, and 60% among Tory voters.
Yet despite these record-breaking immigration numbers, various business leaders have called for even more, eBay UK boss Murray Lambell arguing that ‘We need more people in the country’ for business to ‘thrive in a modern economy’. The CBI has also called for looser restrictions.
Further immigration is needed, the argument goes, because the economy is in a terrible state. The Office for Budget Responsibility ‘estimates that the period from the spring of 2022 to the spring of 2024 will mark the steepest decline in people’s real disposable incomes since records began in the 1950s.’
Britain has fallen far behind other industrialised nations since 2007, Slovenia being the latest country to overtake us (the first, but almost certainly not the last, former communist country to do so). We have seen poor wage growth and runaway housing inflation, and since the general consensus among economists is that immigration boosts the economy, that is one of the few levers we have to pull. But the fact that we have pursued record levels of immigration for 25 years and the past 16 of those have seen dismal results should at least make us pause for thought. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Globalisation brings such obvious economic benefits that its critics, both on the Left and Right, struggle to offer any realistic alternatives. On an international scale anything which reduces barriers – whether of goods, services or people – is going to increase global wealth and living standards.
But on a national level the issue is not so clear-cut. In 2022 the Oxford Migration Observatory concluded that ‘Studies examining the fiscal impact of migrants have produced different results, although in all cases, the impacts have been estimated at less than +1 per cent or - 1 per cent of GDP.’ This echoed the large House of Lords inquiry of 2007-8 which found the economic impact of immigration to be positive but quite small, and tending to favour richer natives at the expense of poorer ones — as you’d expect. Indeed, many if not most economists believe that unskilled immigration makes poorer citizens worse off, at least temporarily.
The economic results of immigration also depend on what sort of people are moving, and from where, the most beneficial tending to be those from wealthy countries (such as the western European migrants we lost after Brexit).
Non-elite migration from the developing world plugs holes in the job market, but it does not necessarily help the economy in the long term, as low-skilled migrants can turn out to be a net loss on the exchequer (especially when social housing is factored in). This is why, while immigration is overall an economic benefit, its impact on the receiving country varies hugely, from Australia and Canada at one extreme to Sweden at another.
The conservative counter to the case for economic migration is that these financial benefits are too small, and too short-term, to justify the huge social change involved.
The unprecedented migration of the Blair years benefited the overall economy, at least in the short term, but it also helped create a society that was more stratified; the evidence for diversity’s negative impact on social capital is strong, and the sort of dynamic, modern society imagined by New Labour would actually make British society less like Sweden and more like America, as David Willetts once put it (this was before Sweden fully embarked on its own humanitarian experiment).
Immigration also stratifies by increasing the cost of housing, enriching those who have got on the ladder and making life increasingly hard for younger people trying to find a place in the capital — hardly surprising when 60% of renters in London are foreign-born. Of course, you can ease these problems by building more houses, just as you can ease the problems of over-eating by exercising instead of dieting. Why not do both?
I have always strongly disliked the term ‘remoaner’ because Brexit caused huge stress and financial misery to many people, especially those running export businesses. But the high levels of immigration which helped trigger it sort of broke the social contract, and many Leave voters hoped to restore it, not smash it further.
Immigration was a major reason for the decision to leave the EU, but it wasn’t just a matter of social cohesion or cultural values; people in certain jobs calculated that it was having a negative impact on their living standards, a claim dismissed by many of the experts who appeared in newspapers, but which was almost certainly true, at least in the short term (and in the short term we’re all alive, to paraphrase a famous economist).
They were consciously voting for a reduced labour force supply, so when they read that bricklayers were now earning huge amounts due to job shortages, this didn’t seem like a crisis but precisely what they wanted — well-paid workers whose income incentivises more young people to join the trade. Then when they read that, of course, the Government was going to ‘relax visa rules for builders to boost numbers’, they could conclude that the Tory Party only has its own interests – and those of its donors – at heart.
There is no doubt that a reduction in immigration could prove painful. Addictions, after all, offer short-term relief and withdrawing from the drug can be stressful and even dangerous. That is exactly how Mark Solfiac described Britain’s immigration policy in a piece for The Critic last month — an addiction the country’s economy can’t wean itself off.
He described how ‘The higher education sector relies on foreign students to pay the bills, with many simply seeing their degree course as a bureaucratic hurdle to jump on their path to eventual permanent settlement. The “health of the property market” (meaning house price inflation) depends on immigration for the population growth, which juices demand whilst supply remains flat. The NHS relies ever more on foreign doctors and nurses to make up the shortfall left by the inadequate numbers we train in the UK.’ And yet many other countries have tried a different approach and had better outcomes.
There are various ways in which we could improve our economy, but our underlying problems in part stem from deep structural issues, the biggest one being an ageing society, a trend which means a future dependency ratio of only 2 to 5 — and that was based on now very optimistic-looking fertility trends.
Many journalists and commentators, including many aligned to the Tory Party, maintain that the solution is more free movement, although no one can say exactly what figure will be enough to cure the patient: one million net migration? Two million? Five million? They can’t state it because the numbers required to maintain the dependency ratio are astronomical, almost comically so.
Back at the turn of the century the United Nations Population Division actually tried calculating the numbers needed to maintain the ratio and concluded that it would require more than 700 million immigrants to the Europe Union between 1995 and 2050, a total that would transform the continent and almost certainly lead to social unrest. But even then the need would not subside, because immigrants also grow old and require pensions and care too — and so even more newcomers are required.
That’s not an economic policy, it’s a Ponzi scheme.
Raising the funds to pay more British workers to work as care staff or in any other role is going to be expensive and painful, and perhaps we just cannot afford it — but deferring the pain by employing cheaper foreign labour is surely only going to make the withdrawal more painful, and will not necessarily lead to happier outcomes for those ageing cartoon figures.
While foreign-born doctors are considerably more likely to be struck off compared to their British colleagues, I’m not convinced that the teachers recruited by the Government, some from countries with average incomes one-twentieth of ours, are going to be an improvement on the countless British teachers who have left the profession because the wages are too poor, the job is too stressful, and the overwhelming bureaucracy too much of a weight on their soul. In life you get what you pay for, and if you don’t invest in the future, you don’t get one.
That Times cartoon was revealing in another way to that intended, presenting the British as elderly patients on their way out, who only want their dying days made more comfortable by saviours from beyond. That is not a healthy vision for a country with any sense of posterity.
In Tomorrow’s People, demographer Paul Morland observed that ageing countries faced ‘the trilemma of the three Es: ethnic continuity, economic growth, and egotism’. Britain chose economic growth and egotism, and in the words of one wise old man, they chose poorly; now it is left only with egotism, but it’s not the hedonistic egotism of a younger generation robbed of their best years but of an ageing cohort willing to see their grandchildren’s future disappear so that their final years are more comfortable.
As the country continues to become relatively poorer, and in ways a worse place to live, it also grows less attractive to the immigrants we most want. In his Critic essay, Mark Solfiac warned that ‘global economic trends are working against Britain as a desirable destination for the best and brightest… As Britain falls further behind its peer countries, it will find it increasingly difficult to attract highly skilled immigrants. They will not only be concerned about living standards and the value of their remittances, but will have many other options to choose from.
‘There is a sense of Britain’s cultural prestige falling off, too. From the “Cool Britannia” era of the mid 90s until 2016, there was a sense that Britain (specifically London) was the place for ambitious young Europeans to come and make their careers in tech, finance, etc. As one journalist and enthusiast for Cool Britannia has bemoaned, this is no longer the case.’
A plausibly bleak scenario has Britain increasingly attracting less economically desirable immigrants to plug badly paid labour gaps, while continuing to lose skilled professionals to emigration, something which may speed up if a CANZUK free movement deal is agreed.
There is an understandable sense of betrayal among Conservative voters. So many opted for the Tory party for the first time in 2019 on the understanding that numbers would come down, something more than 80% of voters believed to be a likely outcome. The Government simply lied, and I’m not sure that party leaders appreciate how little people care that they’re going to lose their jobs. All except those MPs who signed up to this pledge, who will at least be able to look those voters in the face with a sense of honour.
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