The migration consensus

Today I read the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Migration Review for 2010/2011. In general, IPPR’s migration reports are carefully researched, well-balanced analyses of UK migration trends, providing a welcome antidote to the dubious statistics and rhetorical manipulation that Migration Watch engages in (we’ll come back to Migration Watch later).
The IPPR briefing concentrates on presenting the migration numbers. These paint a clear picture: less UK emigration, lower but constant levels of Eastern European immigration, more foreign students and less foreign workers. This adds up to a net migration flow into the UK of around 200,000 a year.
These are the numbers that have promoted the Conservative-led coalition to promise to drastically reduce migration levels by capping skilled non-EEA migration at 21,700 from April 2011. What the IPPR report underlines is that these policies are utterly misguided.
Highly skilled migrants fill skills shortages. They pay taxes, they’re highly educated, they’re net contributors to the economy – and they take up jobs British and EU citizens can’t (not won’t) do. The UK has failed to produce sufficient numbers of financially literate, technologically innovative, scientifically creative workers. We should be debating the failures of our education: we should also be grateful that international migration allows us to plug a gap of our own making.
And if you’re playing the numbers game, this category is tiny anyway. It’s EU numbers – which are most likely to increase, particularly given the relative state of the UK and Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek economies – that drive this “migration flood”. As hard-line politicians remind us, EU Freedom of Movement is beyond UK control.
So far, so perceptive. But what I find disturbing about the IPPR report is its discussions of the politics of migration. In focusing on public reaction to government policy, and stressing the real risk that the public will become disillusioned with the government’s promises to reduce net migration levels if numbers don’t fall. ’ IPPR seems to be implicitly critiquing the means employed but accepting then aims of UK migration policy: that ‘bringing down the level of immigration… is a legitimate policy goal.’
It’s this that makes me angry – another example of the apparently universal consensus that UK migration levels are “too high”. A consensus which is largely driven by politicians’ rush to prove their anti-migration credentials to voters fed a diet of populist press reports and angry at their own economic and social disempowerment (a legacy of British elitism rather than migration).
I’ve yet to see a single report which makes a credible link between the numbers that map these complex migration flows and the blanket – and largely meaningless statement that migration is “too high”. This leads to a double irony, and a double denial of choice. Politicians have closed down the debate on migration. Everyone agrees migration is “too high” – leaving us only to discuss of how you reduce it.
One false “choice”. But despite this consensus, it’s equally clear that politics can’t turn back the tide. Migration is here to stay. And offering a frightened and under-prepared population meaningless platitudes, rather than accepting the reality of global interconnection and working to ensure UK citizens can join this economy is a second false “choice”.
Politicians are fond of calling for a “real debate” on migration, and in this they should be heard. But a “real debate” doesn’t begin after accepting that migration is “too high”. If we want to expand freedom for everyone, we need first to break this migration consensus.