What kind of country do we want to be?

Crowd at Liverpool Street Station

In the run-up to the lifting of restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian migrants at the start of this year Britain’s immigration debate reached a new level of panic. This culminated in dozens of journalists – and a few politicians – gathering in Luton airport to meet passengers on a new year’s day flight from Romania who, for the most part, already lived in the UK but had gone home for Christmas.

In advance of this projected ‘invasion’ the prime minister announced new curbs on migrant workers’ access to benefits. These were uncontroversial in themselves because conditionality on benefits is the right thing to do. But the measures announced ignored the inconvenient fact that most European Union migrants come to work, not to claim and that the proportion of people claiming working-age benefits in the UK who are EU migrants is tiny. That didn’t matter, because the prime minister, driven by terror on the Tory backbenches over the threat from Ukip, wanted to do something, anything, to pretend somehow he could deal with this ‘problem’.

Labour has not shared the Tory pessimism about this issue but its rhetoric has become more apologetic and two things which are very different have become merged. The first is the official underestimation of the number of people who would come to the UK following the enlargement of the EU to take in eastern and central European countries. And the second is that this underestimate somehow proves the whole thing was an enormous mistake. It is a very important point to make in the immigration debate that these two things are not one and the same.

Underlying all of this recent debate is the view that the opening up of the UK’s labour market to workers from central and eastern Europe was wrong and that immigration is a problem to be dealt with. Few want to acknowledge that EU migrants pay more in to the tax and benefit system than they take out. Or the energy and creativity contributed by those who want to make a new life in the UK. Or that having the brightest students from around the world come to study at our great universities is an advantage for our country and something that has lasting trade, cultural and political benefits.

Much has been made of tightening minimum wage or other labour market laws because of EU migrants ‘undercutting’ workers already here. Exploitation in the labour market does happen. Migrant workers are sometimes poorly treated and regarded as cheap labour. If the law needs strengthening we should certainly do it. But we are kidding ourselves on if we think the only reason employers want to hire EU migrants is because they are always cheaper. There are tough questions here about skill levels in the workforce and willingness to do certain jobs. This is not just about the cost of labour.

Opinion polls show high levels of public concern about immigration and some politicians have mirrored the concerns. But leadership is not just about mirroring fears or joining the rush to resist change – it is also about explaining change and arguing for the opportunities the future holds.

Britain has changed irrevocably in recent decades. Some of this has been disruptive and difficult to deal with but to conclude that it was all a mistake and should be stopped reflects a profound and unnecessary pessimism about our country and its place in the world. One of Britain’s great strengths is our ability to adapt to change and our willingness to seize new opportunities. In today’s world no country is going to succeed by trying to stand still or turn back the clock. 1950 is not coming back.

Beneath all the facts and figures about immigration and the cost-benefit analyses over who pays in and who takes out is a more fundamental question: what kind of country do we want to be? One that reaches out with confidence and optimism and engages with the world or one that concludes all this globalisation is too difficult and we are better turning away from it? That is the real issue facing the UK as it debates its membership of the EU and indeed its own break-up. There are huge opportunities for us in continuing to engage with the world, being confident about our place in it and in what we can achieve. The call for more isolation is not the future we should embrace.


Pat McFadden is Labour MP for Wolverhampton South-east. He tweets @PatMcFaddenMP


Photo: David Sim

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Comments: 4...

  1. On January 16, 2014 at 9:38 pm EricBC responded with... #

    ”One of Britain’s great strengths is our ability to adapt to change and our willingness to seize new opportunities.”

    Ah, how nostalgic! Britain has not been adapting or changing to new circumstances for decades. We are mired in terminal trade deficit. We are selling oof real estate to balance our international payments. We are overspending madly though our government. We are up to our necks in consumer debt.

    We have no national investment bank, no sovereign wealth fund. We are grossly under-invested. We call foreign money coming in ”inward investment” which conceals our failure to invest in ourselves. Because we prefer to consume. Wealth is under-taxed. Up-scale real estate is grossly under-taxed.

    Our school curriculum for the working class is just so much soft, puerile would-be academic junk. We have no trades schools for 14-18 year old’s producing apprentices across the fifty most needed trades – and I do not mean hairdressing or nail painting.

    And we have not yet faced up to the consequences of large scale immigration. One problem being is that it legitimises, through treaty agreement that we are bound to, further continuous legal immigration which is unstoppable. The main problem being that we have terrible shortage of housing and rents, as the man said in the U.S. elections are too damn high.

    Keep in mind that when a migrant enters the UK they inherit, as part of becoming a resident, investments in infrastructure and the built environment that have accrued over centuries. As the pace of immigration picks up, pressure on the built environment naturally grows. Either we deal with it or we have a crisis. We appear to have chosen to have a crisis.

    I mean how can we build enough houses and develop services when there is so much stuff from China coming in that we just gotta buy? We are not citizens! We are mere, manipulated, out of control, highly-indebted consumers without a plan.

    • On January 19, 2014 at 12:02 pm Anonymous responded with... #

      The three most successful apprenticeship programs are indeed Hairdressing and Beauty, Building and Construction and Engineering. All these are supported by a trade association or a ITB. But it is employers responsibility to lead training apprenticeships not the State. We should look at Denmark for some inspiration.

      I should mention I think Art and Design which is successfully college based. Think Ives and Bowie (the latter went to a Tech and put himself more by luck than judgement though his own apprenticeship.)

  2. On January 16, 2014 at 11:07 pm Kay responded with... #

    Thank you for writing this, thank you for saying this – when barely any politician would dare to. I wish your front bench colleagues would take notice. I am a migrant, and the public rhetoric has been bruising and also bewildering – you’re quite right that we should have more confidence in this country and her people – and the future.

  3. On January 17, 2014 at 9:37 pm Trofim responded with... #

    England is the most crowded major country in the most crowded continent. I hate
    to mention brute reality, but nothing can last for ever. In a territory with a
    perpetually increasing human population, there can never be, by definition,
    enough houses, or enough anything. The engine which drives our society is an
    engine of consumption, perpetual consumption, based of false premises, namely,
    that ever more “prosperity” – that is, ever more things – leads to ever more
    happiness. It doesn’t. It’s an illusion, and an environmentally destructive
    illusion, like the illusion of the heroin addict who needs an ever-increasing
    dose to satisfy his habit. It cannot go on for ever. And even if you don’t give
    a toss about the environment which enables us to be alive and shares our island
    with us, just bear in mind that with the ever greater amount of things we have
    to import, like 40% of our food now for starters, ever more has to be paid for,
    and to pay for it we have to work ever harder just to stay afloat.
    Globalisation is a hoax – it’s overwhelmingly a one-way globalisation. Brits
    are on the whole less educated than others, and the gap is growing all the
    time. Importing workers to do our dirty work reinforces a conviction, already
    common among young Brits, that there is work suitable for them – media, films,
    entertainment, management – but lots of jobs which are frankly beneath them –
    jobs where you have to get your hands dirty – “immigrant jobs”.
    And apart from this, if we live in one big global family, why do we talk about
    local solutions – building houses in this country, and providing jobs in THIS
    country? What about an international solution to housing our population –
    house them abroad? There’s no end of empty houses in Spain and Ireland, I’m
    told. There are tens of thousands of empty houses in Russia, and thousands of
    empty villages waiting to be inhabited. Thought about using them? Of course
    not. It’s nonsense. Talk of a “globalised” world and “internationalism” is
    just so much empty and misleading rhetoric. It’s no more than code for a few
    people going out of Britain, and a lot of people coming in to Britain. Let’s
    get real. Darryl and Chantelle down on the sink estate aren’t going to pick
    fruit in eastern europe, are they, and a lot of Brits can’t even speak their
    own language properly, let alone learn another.
    But what kind of country would I like Britain to be? I’d like it to be a
    country where people are satisfied with enough, where they see through the
    great prosperity hoax, where they can hear a skylark instead of recording of a
    skylark singing, where my descendants can see the stars instead of an orange
    glow of light pollution and see horizons instead of perpetual housing estates
    and retail parks. But the die is already cast.

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