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The economic rationalists don’t get the immigration debate

Diane Abbott described the MAC immigration report as “rational”. Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty

Diane Abbott described the MAC immigration report as “rational”. Credit: Jack Taylor / Getty

September 25, 2018   5 mins

There is something missing from our debate on immigration. As articulated by our elites, it lacks an understanding and sympathy for human beings as we are. It sees us instead as defective calculating machines that need to be re-engineered in order to make the correct choices.

The latest Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) report on EEA migration is in many ways an admirable piece of work. But, in its assumptions and way of proceeding, it is cut largely from this technocratic cloth.

In his foreword to the report, Alan Manning says that its purpose is “to provide an evidence base for the design of a new migration system after the end of the implementation period in 2021”. However, when he says later on that “EEA migration has had impacts, [but] many of them seem to be small in magnitude when set against other changes”, and specifies a 1.7 % increase in prices following the EU referendum, a few alarm bells should be ringing.

By any measure, the changes in our communities and increase in population over the past 20 years have been more significant than a small adjustment in prices brought on by exchange rates. This, though, is the level of elite discourse on immigration. It focuses on ‘data’ and ‘evidence’, but in an abstract way, directed towards business interests and removed from the lived experience of people. The MAC itself acknowledges there may be dangers to this approach – but only deep into the report, far from its headline statements.

It is an approach characteristic of that behemoth which dominates British government and wants to keep the tap of mass immigration firmly on – the Treasury. George Osborne, now editor of the Evening Standard, articulated this when he attacked Theresa May’s immigration targets as “economically illiterate”: “If I had a regret,” he said, “it’s not that we didn’t manage the immigration system properly… we were, I think, too intimidated to make the arguments about the benefits of immigration.”

At about the time Osborne is referring to, Gordon Brown’s former economic adviser, Jonathan Portes, was demanding that Cameron’s government put prosperity and growth before arbitrary migration targets, praising the UK’s flexible labour market and employing the now almost ubiquitous language of “open, outward-looking Britain”.

It’s fair and reasonable to make the economic rationalist argument that maximising the economy is best achieved by a liberal migration regime. The trouble is that this view is often pushed forward as rational in an absolute sense, with any dissenting views denounced as “irrational” – and often worse.

Portes, who carried out some analysis for the MAC report, has never been backward in his politics over immigration – and is keen to invoke his authority as an expert to back it up. As he wrote after the report’s publication:

“Over the past eight years, immigration policy has been based not on analysis and evidence but on unpleasant and damaging nativism. The MAC report provides an opportunity to reverse that – let’s hope our politicians have the courage to take it.”

This echoes a theme that recurs in my book, The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity – the marrying of economic rationalism with the politics of diversity and identity. As I have written it, this has happened particularly around the subject of immigration. For Portes, as for others, mass immigration appears rational on an absolute basis because it is supported by the “analysis and evidence”. However, we can see him also playing the race card, attacking governments that have talked about limiting immigration as “nativists”. The way he presents it, they aren’t just irrational but also racist.

This informal alliance between free market liberalism and the politics of diversity over mass immigration is, as I say in my book, “one of the political stories of our time”. It has given technocratic liberals some moral authority for free market policies, while also allowing the liberal-left to claim economic credibility and support from business for their advocacy of increased diversity. You can see the merging of these tendencies in figures like Portes, Osborne and Sadiq Khan.

It’s an alliance that first found sustained expression during the 13 years of New Labour government from 1997 to 2010; Portes was an influential figure, helping to establish the consensus in policy-making circles that remains with us today. Even politicians on the farther reaches of the Left, including Diane Abbott and Caroline Lucas, now gather around this position and the authority it offers.

Abbott, for example, responded to the MAC report by calling it “rational”, invoking the authority of “evidence” and “expert advice” in order to support high levels of immigration. We can see similar forces at work in the support of far-Left politicians and activists for the European Single Market – something that the older generation of Lefties, including Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn resolutely opposed.

But the strength of this position is a political one; it is not necessarily an indication of how appropriate a liberal migration regime is for Britain now – or in general. In my book, I avoid making a technical, calculating judgment of the kind that the MAC report leans towards and that Osborne, Portes and Abbott advocate. I think contemporary mass immigration is much too complex for us to be able to do this. Any judgments we make are limited by what we take into account – as well as what we don’t – which is generally dictated by our politics.

For while the tabloid treatment of the immigration question often plays on fear, unjustifiably and stupidly politicising migrants (at least in headlines) as negative and dangerous, the economic rationalist approach also reduces modern immigration to a lot less than it is. Specifically, it tends to rule out any consideration of the existential aspects: of how we experience and interpret the world, often treating such aspects as illegitimate: as ‘subjective’ and ‘irrational’, as not based in facts and evidence, and therefore to be ruled out of consideration and banished from politics itself.

But the feeling of loss that someone experiences when their world becomes less familiar, and their connections into it die off, is real and important. It’s an experience of what I would call ‘existential defeat’ – of losing rather than winning in ways that aren’t always clear and certainly aren’t easy to explain. It’s unsettling, traumatic even.

The economic rationalists are making a political choice when they dismiss these concerns as trivial or describe them as ‘necessary’ sufferances in order for the modern world to progress. It’s the same with their accusations of racism or ‘nativism’. It’s their way of adjusting to the world and and assessing where political power lies within it. Osborne, for example, knows he can align with the bulk of business opinion and many on the liberal-Left by supporting the loosening of migration rules. The same goes for Portes and Abbott.

We all make calculations like this – considering what best suits us – in our daily lives. And how immigration affects us is no different. If democracy is to have any meaning at all, it must listen to and respond to the voters. If we allow core existential questions like who we are and what we are to exist beyond the frame of democracy, in the hands of those who present their politics as facts, then there is little point in democracy at all.

The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity by Ben Cobley is out now on Imprint

Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.


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