Immigration can no longer be ignored

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Immigration is the most contentious of all the challenges confronting today’s high-income countries. Decent people do not want to confront the issue, not only for fear of being labelled racist, but because, quite rightly, they do not want to poison relations with fellow citizens. But this is a vital issue for the future of a country. It must be confronted.

That the British agree is evident. According to an Ipsos Mori poll conducted in June, they regarded immigration and race relations as the second most important issue facing the country today, after crime. This is not surprising. Between 1995 and 2004 alone, net immigration by non-British people was a fraction under 2m, or
3 per cent of the population. It was 342,000 in 2004. This is some 60,000 more than the population of Leicester in a single year.

Not only is the inflow substantial, but it is also having significant impact on the size and composition of the population. Net immigration generated two-thirds of the increase in the UK’s population between 2001 and 2004. By 2001, ethnic minorities made up close to 10 per cent of the population. More recently, there also has been a very large immigration from new members of the European Union.

Nobody planned this level of immigration. On the contrary, both the country and the government avoided serious debate on the subject. Suppose, however, that they were to confront it seriously: what questions should they ask? I suggest the following: first, whose welfare counts? Second, is it possible to control immigration? Third, what are its economic consequences? Fourth, does the cultural impact matter? Finally, what policies should the UK have?

Let me at least suggest some answers. The first is that the welfare of existing citizens has priority. This does not mean that the benefits to potential immigrants count for nothing. It means that political communities have a right to determine their own composition. Countries matter, not just as a matter of fact – as the focus of social organisation in the modern world – but as a matter of right – as communities with a shared destiny.

The second is that controls are feasible. Indeed, the huge discrepancies in real wages across the globe demonstrate this. While unavoidably porous, controls are at least partially effective.

The answer to the third has one central element: immigration’s impact on an economy’s overall size must be carefully distinguished from that on incomes per head. Too much of the debate in the UK has focused, absurdly, on the former. China has a bigger economy than Switzerland. Most people would prefer to be Swiss.

Furthermore, the principal beneficiaries of immigration are migrants themselves. In addition, immigration of skilled people is likely to bring larger economic benefits (including fiscal benefits) than that
of unskilled people. Immigration of the skilled is also likely to shift the distribution of earnings in favour of the domestic unskilled. Immigration
of unskilled people is likely to do
the reverse.

Businesses argue for immigration as a way of dealing with “labour shortages”. This is, however, no more than a statement of their desire to enjoy the benefit of cheap labour. But the vast majority of citizens do not share this desire. On the contrary, those whose incomes depend on their earnings from work will want labour to be as expensive as possible, provided those who wish to do so can find employment.

Immigration must also have wider economic effects, particularly in a small country with tight restrictions on new development. The elevated recent rate of immigration must,
for example, be one of the explanations for the soaring house prices of recent years.

Now consider the fourth and most explosive of questions. Until recently, I would have been unambiguously in favour of the diversity brought to the UK by large-scale immigration. This was, however, on the possibly naive assumption that a shared commitment to core common values – to democracy, equality of men and women, a single secular legal system and freedom of expression – would unite all citizens. When a small number of citizens wish to murder a random collection of their fellows
and a far larger number sympathise with them, that belief begins to look very foolish.

What then is my bottom line? It is that a continuation of net immigration on the recent scale is hard to justify. It is that the assumption that all communities will integrate within the political and religious culture of the UK may be quite wrong. It is that the country must insist on the universality of its liberal values. It is that the focus now should be on bringing in skilled people who are most likely to make a big economic contribution to the country and to fit most comfortably within its norms and values. It is, above all, that the country must have this debate. The topic is too important to be ignored.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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