I’ve argued in favour of immigration to the UK for my entire adult life – and for much of my childhood. Since as early as I could argue, in fact. That’s because I hail from a long line of Irish immigrants. The painful and demanding process of leaving your true home and setting up overseas, striving to better yourself amidst a sometimes hostile foreign culture, is hard-wired into me. Generations of Halligans have left rural Ireland, to build roads, bridges and houses across America, Australia, Canada and, in my father’s case, the UK.
So I’m from proud migrant stock. I’m also an economist. And like most economists, I recognize the overwhelmingly positive historical impact migrants have had on the British economy – be they from Asia or the Caribbean, Huguenots or Jews, from Ireland or, more recently from East European countries now members of the European Union.
Yet despite my credentials as a pro-immigration economist and my own migrant background, I back Brexit. That’s not inconsistent. There is, in my view, a very strong pro-immigration case for leaving the EU. In fact, I’d go further. I’d say that the vast majority of people who really understand how immigration works in the UK, and who grew up in a truly diverse environment – with a multitude of ethnicities, living and working cheek-by-jowl – will back Brexit too.
That’s because we understand that, while the UK is inherently tolerant of migrants – superbly tolerant – there’s a thin divide between acceptance on the one hand, and despair and even anger on the other. That line is maintained when people see explicit controls on immigration. It’s maintained when there’s confidence migrants are arriving at a pace that allows them to be absorbed, and settle themselves, in a reasonably orderly way. It’s maintained when low-skilled, low-income British workers – who have the same rights at the ballot box as everyone else – feel they’re being listened to, their concerns taken on board, and not being patronized or dismissed as “ignorant” or “racist”.
The above conditions don’t now hold – not by a long chalk. That’s why opinion polls show very substantial public concern about the pace of immigration. It’s also why David Cameron gave a “no ifs, not buts” pledge before the 2015 general election to get net UK immigration below 100,000. While smart campaigning, that pledge was also disingenuous. As a member of the EU, the UK has absolutely no way of preventing migrants from the other 27 EU member states from coming to live and work here as and when they wish.
There are now six EU members where the average wage is less than a third of the UK’s minimum wage, and a further eight where it’s less than a half. Read that sentence again and you’ll understand why we need controls – not “draconian controls”, not “pulling up the drawbridge” as the Remain camp so love to retort, but controls that make immigration manageable.
That’s one reason I back Brexit. Not because I don’t like immigrants. On the contrary, conversations with young Poles and Bulgarians who’ve come to England and are building a new life, brave and determined people whose struggles I recognize, can literally move me to tears. I want Brexit because unless there are annual limits, unless there is public confidence and immigrants arrive as part of a system that is broadly viewed as legitimate, they are going to have an increasingly difficult time.
Unless this immigration process which has helped build Britain, which has driven our economy, which has given us our superbly diverse culture, is brought back under the control of our own elected politicians, those we can lobby and judge, then this wonderfully liberal country, against its better nature, will become uncharacteristically extreme. There will be a backlash against immigration – not just moaning, and complaining, but a properly dangerous and ugly backlash. Opportunist proto-leaders will emerge hell bent on fanning the flames of suspicion, hatred and fear. That simply must not happen. Yet that’s where uncontrolled immigration will ultimately take us – to a Britain, tragically, with little or no immigration, where the bigots will have won. The economic – and human – downside would be profound.
This was the week when the referendum debate turned nasty. David Cameron accused those backing Brexit as doing the bidding of “our enemies”, citing the leader of Isis terrorist group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Does Former Chancellor Nigel Lawson support Isis? Or Former SDP Leader David Owen? Is Kate Hoey a closet terrorist-sympathiser? Or her fellow Labour backbencher Frank Field?
The increasingly strident nature of “Project Fear”, and continued demonizing of those with the temerity to exercise their democratic right to back Leave, perhaps explains why Former Cabinet Minister Peter Lilley, another respected backer of Brexit, last week tabled a Commons amendment which could see the first defeat on the Queen’s speech for any government in over 90 years.
Amidst the Parliamentary fireworks, though, it’s worth analyzing the latest immigration numbers. Some 257,000 EU migrants came to the UK during the year to September 2015, according to official figures released last week, up from 223,000 the year before. The fine print shows, though, that no less than 630,000 national insurance numbers were issued to workers from the EU in 2015, almost three times the official migrant figure. And 590,000 new NI numbers were allocated to EU migrants the year before, again well in excess of – more than two and a half times – recorded immigration.
Over the last five years, the discrepancy between “EU migrants” counted in official surveys and NI numbers issued – which everyone needs to work, or at least to work legally – amounts to over 1.3m. Migration from the EU since 2010 has amounted to 1.2m – more than the population of Birmingham, our second city. Yet more than 2.5m NI numbers have been ascribed to EU nationals.
The difference – the “missing immigrants” – may be partly explained by “benefit fraud”, with migrants assuming multiple identities. But I don’t think so. Very few people emigrate from the EU to the UK to claim benefits. They come, instead, to work – given the massive UK wage premium, particularly with Eastern Europe.
The discrepancy arises, I’d say, because migrants in the UK for less than a year don’t count in the government’s headline immigration statistics – even if they come back the following year. But that makes no difference if you’re a British manual or service sector worker competing for jobs, of course, not least as such work is often anyway on short-term contracts.
The UK needs immigration. As British demography changes, and the share of retirees rises, we need more tax-paying workers to support our ageing society. Businesses also need labour, of course, and many company-owners complain that without migrant workers they’d struggle, not least as “some British workers don’t want to work”.
The UK no doubt does have a (relatively small) work-shy underclass. I also understand, extremely well, that immigration is crucial to our economy and, over the years, has made us a more prosperous and culturally-diverse nation. I’d submit my own family is testament to that.
But I also know that the United States – the most successful immigrant nation on earth – has migration controls. Australia, New Zealand, Canada – tolerant and economically successful countries, with vibrant migrant cultures – have migration controls. The UK, for several generations now, as we became the migrant country we are proud to be – has had migration controls. It is naïve and irresponsible to think that, within a fast-expanding EU, we can now simply do without them.