I am fairly positive about immigration. I find the evidence that it brings both economic and social benefits quite persuasive.
But I’m fully aware that many others take a different view. For them, often based on direct personal experience, immigration has meant economic or social distress. And no amount of lectures from clever so-and-sos like me, no set of statistics, no economic model, will change that experience or change their minds.
“If Britain votes to stay in, the British people will have given their explicit consent to a continued policy of free movement”
I’m also aware that many of those people feel that immigration is something that was done to them and their country without their consent. They feel that the politicians and others who oversaw a policy of open borders did so without having been entirely frank with the people affected about that policy and its consequences.
I have mixed feelings about this argument. On one hand, there’s actually quite a lot of evidence that politicians have been quite open about immigration policy, and voters have chosen accordingly. The 2005 election, for instance, was a clear choice between Michael Howard’s anti-immigration Tories and Tony Blair, who quite explicitly from 2004 onwards outlined a policy of deliberately importing foreign workers to fill skills gaps in the UK economy. Voters chose Mr Blair.
More recently though, the picture gets cloudier. We have a government elected on a promise to cut net migration to tens of thousands but also committed to EU membership, and thus the free movement of EU nationals. That is a clear contradiction, one mirrored in the minds of senior Tories. The same people who promise to cut immigration also believe that immigration brings economic benefits. For some, it’s one of the reasons for staying in the EU.
They don’t say so, of course. Very few Remain campaigners will dare be as honest as Stuart Rose in arguing that the EU means a more competitive labour market, with greater wage flexibility and thus greater margins for employers. But be in no doubt, arguing for EU membership means arguing for free movement and all its implications.
The Remain campaign will be uncomfortable about the EU deal with Turkey being hammered out. Yes, Britain is able to stay out of any system that allocates Syrian refugees from Turkey to EU states.
But what happens to those refugees? After five years living in an EU state, they get the right to travel and work freely anywhere in the EU. Including Britain. By way of context, even before the Turkish deal is done, Germany is expecting to take in something like 3.6 million extra migrants by the end of the decade.
Anyone voting on Britain’s EU membership should be aware of these facts. They should also be in no doubt that being in the EU means free movement. Nothing in David Cameron’s reform package changes that. There is no prospect of that basic freedom changing any time soon. The EU means mass migration.
It’s important that British voters know that, so that if Britain votes to stay in, the British people will have given their explicit consent to a continued policy of free movement.
Whereupon we can have a proper and sensible debate about mass migration and its consequences, including talking about a public spending regime that ensures that communities that experience the highest levels of migration also reap the economic benefit: higher spending to meet the higher demand for public services, at the very least.
And by the same token, if Britain votes to Leave, voters will have rejected free movement and we’ll have to a have a proper debate about what should replace it. That, incidentally, could be the really interesting national conversation, since some models for post-Brexit life suggest that free movement would be the price for access to the European single market. Alternatively, other models that reduce net migration significantly could be explored and modelled, presumably with detailed consideration of their economic effects.
Indeed, any post-referendum government trying to establish independent Britain’s immigration policy would presumably have to have the sort of full and open debate with the electorate about immigration that many people feel has been lacking in recent years. A debate that would have to take in benefits as well as costs: “Yes, we can stop the Europeans coming in, but that might possibly mean lower growth and productivity. Are you happy with that?” And so on.
I am realistic about the EU referendum campaign. While it’s under way, we are not going to get a reasoned and informed and open debate about immigration. The Remain campaign isn’t brave enough to make explicit its belief in free movement and free movement’s integral role in EU membership The Leave campaign isn’t honest enough to admit that mass migration from the EU has economic benefits and may well have to continue in some form after Brexit.
But afterwards, we may just get to have a sensible conversation about immigration. Maybe.