The Case for Managed Migration

In the second of two articles debating immigration, Jake Davies, OULC member, argues against freedom of movement and makes the case for restricted migration.

A good place to start this piece is to stress the specifically modern context in which I am advocating for controlled immigration. This is not an assessment of the UK’s intake of Huguenots in the eighteenth century nor migrants from across the Commonwealth following World War 2 (for the record I regard both these developments positively), but a specific discussion about the best response to inward migration to the UK since the late 1990s, the pace of which is without precedent in the modern era with 2015 boasting a record level of net migration: 332 000 more people entered than left the country.[1]

The majority of the British public, and I side with them in doing so, view immigration in recent years differently to historical influxes, as testified by migration’s unprecedented endurance near the top of most voters’ list of political priorities.[2] Moreover, the growth in people concerned about immigration has closely tracked actual increases in migrant numbers, indicating the organic nature of such concerns rather than the cynical view that they have been deliberately manufactured by politicians and anti-immigration parties like UKIP to avert attention from other problems.

The important question of course, is whether current concerns about migration and the related desire to manage it properly are in any way justifiable? I believe so, while also rejecting the common claim that often accompanies calls for controlled immigration that high levels of migration drives down wages. While there is a case that in some flexible and historically non-unionised economic sectors, such as the construction industry, high influxes of cheap foreign labour can depress wages, there is little evidence to back up this argument across the economy as a whole because migrants invariably generate demand for new labour, thereby keeping wages steady. For this reason, I side with Labour’s overall assessment of migration as a positive economic, and indeed, social phenomenon. Where I disagree, however, is in translating this positive attitude towards migration into support for unlimited freedom of movement in which individuals’ ability to freely cross national borders is seen as a fundamental, unconditional right.

Proponents of unlimited immigration or open borders often stress how border controls emerged only as recently as the late nineteenth/ early twentieth century, and therefore, regard them as modern impositions on individual liberty that should be removed. Aside from the fact no-one opposes democracy or the welfare state on the grounds that they did not exist in practice before the twentieth century, this argument is flawed insofar as it misses the unprecedented change in our country and indeed, much of the world in the meantime. The twentieth century witnessed the growth of complex, interconnected societies that confer universal benefits and aid to the most needy within countries’ borders in return for a higher level of obligation from citizens. In the UK it brought old-age pensions, free comprehensive education, and the NHS, to name but a few developments.

The relevance of societal change to the debate over migration is that in raising the value of citizenship to a significantly higher level than ever before, and at the same time as global mobility has considerably increased, modern nations like the UK have rendered border controls more likely. As citizenship has become more attractive to the outside world, it is unsurprising that governments have taken greater measures to ensure it is not abused, especially given the fact the value of this citizenship relies on everyone taking greater social responsibility. To put it another way, modern citizenship costs a lot; in a situation where immigration is uncontrolled, native citizens interpret this as granting citizenship to outsiders for free. This I believe is one of the most powerful explanations behind the sizeable majority of Britons (including over half of ethnic minorities) who oppose the mass migration of recent times, namely because they fear the system is out of control and people are gaining access to the benefits of British citizenship without being fully integrated into society in return.[3][4]

Although one may respond that on average migrants contribute more to the Treasury than they receive in benefits, this misses how it is the principle of unlimited generosity which rankles. For migrants to be truly integrated into society, and crucially for natives to accept them, citizenship must be earned. David Goodhart offers a sensible approach to managing migration and reducing resentment about people abusing British citizenship, namely devising a system that properly distinguishes between permanent and temporary citizens.[5]

Temporary citizens, he argues, should enjoy more limited social and political rights – corresponding to their own transactional arrangements with the UK – allowing the government to concentrate more rights, benefits and resources for integration on those who are fully committing to the country, as well as helping people in greatest need such as asylum seekers.

Finally, I would like to respond to the claim that in a world where capital and finance increasingly move freely across national borders, any measure to reduce labour’s overall freedom of movement will play into the former’s hands. I agree with this sentiment and for that reason, regard unreconstructed Thatcherites like Nigel Farage with great suspicion, insofar as he has spent his political career demanding stricter controls on migration while wanting capital to roam freely. However, I and many other advocates of controlled immigration also favour policies that would rein in capital, from the promotion of regional investment banks that can only fund projects within a specific area to more robust international efforts to tackle predator multinationals and close down tax havens.

To sum up, my support for managed migration comes within the context of complex modern societies and welfare states that require outsiders to earn their citizenship, and is accompanied by measures to restrain the movement of capital so as not to disadvantage labour.





[5] D. Goodhart, The Road To Somewhere (2017) p. 126

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