Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

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Immigration needs a New York state of mind
The Times - April 19th 2010

Bureaucratic controls will only deny Britain the benefits it has reaped from foreign workers over the years

Being stuck in New York, waiting for the Icelandic ashes to stop scattering themselves in Europe’s airspace, does at least provide a bit of perspective on Britain’s election campaign. Watching from the Big Apple has told me three things.

The first will be tested during the coming fortnight: it is that Nick Clegg’s surprising leap to prominence thanks to Thursday’s TV debate ought not to have been a surprise at all, for claims that he is the Barack Obama of British politics look correct from across the pond. For he is the person best placed to satisfy the natural desire for change following a troubled period in politics and government, just as Mr Obama was in 2008.

The second is that financial reform remains a potent arena for populist politics. News that the Securities and Exchange Commission is going after Goldman Sachs, Wall Street’s most powerful firm, for alleged fraud reflects a confidence that taking down mighty financiers will win plaudits rather than brickbats. Banks, bonuses and reform of the City will surely also come back as prominent issues during the rest of Britain’s campaign, giving further help to the Lib Dems.

The third point, though, is the main one, and it is a deeper, longer-term reflection of New York life. It is that immigration, the issue raised in the first question of Thursday’s leaders’ debate, has been an absolutely central element of the economic, social and political success both of this city and of America itself. Immigration can be a toxic issue in US politics, too, especially outside the metropolitan North East. But there is much less need in America to make the case for liberal policies than in Britain. Immigration is an issue on which all three main British parties are on the defensive and hence illiberal.

This is an emerging tragedy for a country whose strength over the centuries has been so clearly based on trade, global business and openness to the free movement of people. Like New York, London has been culturally and economically enriched by migration, which has made it Europe’s only truly international city. Now that London has as its Mayor a man who, on his own account, is a “one-man melting pot”, with genes from Russia and Turkey, you might have thought that Boris Johnson’s party would take a positive approach to this issue. But the Conservatives do not, and nor do the other main parties.

The Tories say they want to cut immigration to “tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”, taking Britain back to the 1990s — a time when I, then the Editor of The Economist, found it damagingly hard to bring talented foreigners to work in London. The Tories would set an annual limit on economic migrants from outside the EU (ie, including Americans) and would never again allow people from new member states to come immediately to work in Britain, as happened with Polish plumbers and Lithuanian labourers in 2004.

The Labour Party claims credit for having slowed the inflow in the past two years. It thinks that its “points-based” system, intended to ensure that only immigrants with the right skills are allowed in, is lent legitimacy by aping Australian practice. The Liberal Democrats are scarcely more liberal, saying that their points-based system would be regional rather than national, “to ensure that migrants can work only where they are needed”.

Naturally plenty of people think that this is all sensible, and not just for fear that Nick Griffin and his British National Party might prosper. They believe the Daily Mail’s claims that almost all the new jobs created under Labour since 1997 have gone to foreigners, and accept the view of the lobby group Migrationwatch that Britain is fast becoming overcrowded thanks to immigration.

Isn’t it? Well, no: in net terms, in the past decade, migration has been adding only about 200,000 people a year to our 61 million, according to the Office for National Statistics. Unsurprisingly, immigration boomed in our 13 years of economic expansion, when jobs were plentiful. Today’s higher unemployment and bleaker economic prospects are likely to deter job-seeking migrants somewhat, reducing the flow in a natural way: only 106,000 East Europeans registered for work in 2009, half the figure for 2007. Moreover, of the 2.5 million rise in total employment since 1997, 1.2 million jobs went to British citizens.

As Philippe Legrain wrote in his 2007 book Immigrants — Your Country Needs Them, the overwhelming evidence is that immigrants bring economic gains, not burdens. They are chiefly of working age, so do not have to be educated and do pay taxes. They are chiefly enterprising and energetic, so they bring new vigour, as they always have in New York. And there will be entrepreneurs and innovators among them — in America the great technological successes of Intel, Google, Yahoo! and eBay were all started by immigrants.

That fact might seem to endorse the parties’ desire to focus on skilled migrants, using “points-based” selection systems. But it doesn’t. First, because we surely ought to have learnt by now that elaborate bureaucratic schemes to plan economies and allocate workers have as much chance of succeeding as the USSR’s Gosplan, whether regional or national, British or Australian. Second, because the founders of those four American firms arrived as children, not skilled people. Third, because we actually want both the brilliant and the cheap. How do the parties think that they can control the cost of public services or provide “free” long-term care for the elderly except by using foreign-born workers?

A liberal society like Britain ought to be proud of its long record of benefiting from immigration. If I were a political party, my manifesto would make immigration easier, not harder. Yes, I would want it to be orderly rather than utterly chaotic, but illegality comes from having overly rigid rules, not lax ones.

I would suggest charging a fee for entry visas that is high enough to attract the more determined people, but low enough to underbid the sums paid by illegal migrants to people-smugglers — £300, say. And rather than forcing foreign students at universities to leave Britain at the end of their studies as we do now, making them take their newly formed human capital with them, I would offer them an incentive to stay.

All this would, it seems, be far too liberal for our political parties — even Mr Clegg’s. But then Britain is not the land of the free.


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