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11 February 2013

Incredibly stupid questions of our time: No. 1 – Is immigration good or bad for Britain?

It is a well-known fact that over 99 per cent immigrants to Britain come from just one country called Immigrantland (this is why they are called immigrants). Moreover, Immigrantland is remarkable for the homogeneity of its population – any one of its citizens is culturally and economically indistinguishable from any other.

There’s no need to verify these facts, they can be deduced from the British debate over immigration, in which the leading participants have clearly dismissed the possibility that immigrants might actually come from different places and from different backgrounds, and thus have different impacts on the different communities in which they settle. 

Having safely discarded this theory, the opposing sides on this issue are at one in viewing immigration as a single, undifferentiated phenomenon, with a uniform impact on the host population. The only thing they do disagree about is whether this impact is uniformly bad or uniformly good.

But, hang on, who’s this, with his outrageously nuanced views? It’s David Goodhart of Prospect magazine, who’s up to all sorts of mischief – like looking at the evidence:

  • “I have recently ploughed through a lot of the economic work on recent immigration to Britain... and the conclusion of almost all the analysis on wages, employment, fiscal benefit, economic growth and so on is that despite the very large numbers the impact on the existing population has been very small, except for some negative effect for those at the bottom.”

Of course, this is just the overall impact – the sum effect not only of the great variety of individual immigrants, but also of different scales and patterns of immigration:

  • “...many… pro-immigration economists… are insufficiently sensitive to scale, the obvious cultural and economic advantages of immigration on a small scale can quickly turn negative when numbers reach the levels experienced in Britain in recent years…”

Particularly important is the distinction between temporary and permanent immigration:

  • “On some estimates about 70 per cent of current immigrants… they are less likely to cluster residentially and less likely to make significant demands on the system.”
  • “By contrast those granted permanent residence are overwhelmingly from developing countries and tend to be poorer and make more demands. It is this group, intending to properly join British society, which attracts most anxiety from existing citizens and should be the focus of what passes for integration policy. Like the total net immigration number the number of those granted permanent residence has also been running at historically unprecedented levels in recent years… and it is this number that should be the main focus of reduction efforts.”

It should be obvious that there are many important distinctions to be made in immigration policy. The key question, however, is this: In whose interest should these distinctions be made? 

For an intellectual figure of the centre-left, Mr Goodhart has a remarkably provocative answer:

  • “I would guess that it remains the common sense assumption of 90 per cent of British citizens that public policy should give preference to the interests of citizens before non-citizens should the two conflict: That does not mean you cannot be an internationalist, or believe that it is a valuable part of our tradition to offer a haven to refugees, or believe that all humans are of equal moral worth and if they are in British space are entitled to certain basic rights. But it does mean that the first call on our resources and sense of obligation begins with our fellow citizens.”

Britain’s immigration policy in the British interest? Well, you never know, it might just work!


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