Why the radical centre can’t just ignore migration


So the cat is out of the bag. Or maybe it is. A document has been leaked about Brexit scenarios, prepared it would seem by the UK Treasury, probably using a wider cross-Whitehall set of experts, which suggests the negative economic impacts of the three main likely ones.

It is not an impact assessment as such. We know this, because we have been told by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that there are no formal impact assessments. It is not a finalised study and should not be understood as such, several ministers pointed out. It does not evaluate the preferred scenario of Britain outside the customs union and single market but striking a free trade deal or some kind of frictionless cross-border trade agreement, as the Prime Minister pointed out.

Anyway, the Treasury’s forecasts were generally wrong, Brexit Minister Steve Baker helpfully pointed out, possibly (and possibly not) implying that the Treasury was biased and would put forward such analyses to promote the case for ‘soft Brexit’.

I am not allowed to read the leaked analysis in full. Only MPs, in a private room, may consult the paper and must respect confidentiality, so as not to undermine Britain’s negotiating position by publicising disquieting analysis. Except if it is shared with the Scottish devolved parliament, which has already threatened to publish it if it receives it.

Much attention in this unholy, very modern British mess has been paid to the arguments in the analysis (not an impact assessment, remember) that the main Brexit scenarios all show Britain performing worse if it left the single market and customs union, than if Britain remained in the single market and customs union. This is currently poison for most cabinet ministers.

Worse, however, is the apparent argument in the analysis that the economic deficit which will result from lower migration to the UK from the EU will outweigh the benefits of any free trade deals outside the EU.

This is explosive stuff for the government and must be proved wrong. It undermines an essential Conservative and Brexit hypothesis: that taking back control of borders, sharply reducing immigration from the EU (to “tens of thousands”) and discouraging new EU migrants from making the UK their home is actually beneficial for Britain.

Wages for lower skilled workers will go up as ‘unfair’ competition decreases, lower skilled jobs currently taken by lower skilled migrants from the EU will instead be taken by British workers, not to mention all the benefits to the cohesion of British communities which derive from having fewer non-British people seeking out medical services, schooling and social care.

Taking back Britain for the British combined with free trade leadership as ‘global Britain’, is the mantra of most ‘hard’ Brexiteers. Only last week, a furious Theresa May rejected Michel Barnier’s suggestion that EU migrants coming to the UK in the transition period (April 2019 to December 2020) should be given the same residency rights as those arriving in Britain before April 2019. We may only be talking about 21 months or so, but Brexit orthodoxy insists on a clampdown on EU migration as soon as the UK leaves the European Union (“Taking back control”).

A right-wing thinktank only recently suggested a new immigration system in which lower skilled migrants prepared to work anti-social hours could be given a severely restricted, strictly limited visa to come and work in Britain after Brexit – to do the jobs the local British are presumably reluctant to do?

So what should the Radical Centre make of all of this? Migration is a poisoned chalice, and one that must be touched with care. Of course, any sensible economic assessment (excluding those analyses written for the thinktanks of the far right in Britain) will conclude that migration is generally positive for the economy and especially for an economy that needs access to labour and increased productivity to keep it strong.

But how does the Radical Centre respond to the plumber in Walsall who earns two thirds of what he used to because of competition from Polish plumbers? Or the painter and decorator in East London who can’t compete with the influx of Romanian decorators who undercut him? Or indeed to the man who phoned into an LBC chat show to complain that (although, he emphasised, he was not a racist) on a recent trip to the supermarket, his was the only white face he could see?

I have argued in a previous article that the Radical Centre relies on a good level of education and that it provides non-simplistic answers to complex questions. But migration is, and remains, a huge challenge for the centre across Europe.

Of course, one might, with sadness, dismiss the concerns of the Walsall and East London tradesmen. In an open, fluid economy with migration to fuel it, there will be losers as well as winners, and lower skilled British workers may be the losers. Globalisation or open borders just don’t work for everyone. As for the gentleman in the supermarket, he just needs to accept that Britain has changed. His part of town is neither exclusively white, nor Christian any more. The newcomers may seem strange, but they are part of the fabric now, so live with it.

One must beware however, that these concerns, both economic and cultural, are genuine, and while one may choose to ignore them, one can’t pretend they don’t exist. That is to be the metropolitan, cosmopolitan elite which lost the case for staying in the EU.

The benefit to the UK economy as a whole of high levels of migration don’t pass muster if you are a specific blue-collar worker competing in a specific trade where foreigners are prepared to work for less. Given a chance to remove some of them, you would take it. Donald Trump understood the rationale of the ‘little man’ with poor prospects all too well. The metropolitan elite clearly doesn’t.

Which brings us back to Brexit – the real question, which the government dare not acknowledge, is whether one is prepared to accept a perceptible decline in economic performance in order to reduce the number of foreigners in Britain? A more British Britain, but somewhat poorer? At least The Times columnist Melanie Phillips was honest enough to admit she would accept a reduction in economic performance to “repatriate our sovereignty”, which to most people means “taking back control” of the borders, or reducing immigration.

The real debate for most people who voted for Brexit, we have to assume, is not about EU alignment versus free trade independence, which occupies the minds of Conservative free marketers, but about higher levels of migration versus lower levels of migration, especially lower skilled migrants. About Britishness. Or perhaps, more pertinently given the referendum vote, about Englishness.

But it is not just England, or Britain, that faces a problem. There is a poisonous cultural debate about integration of migrants even in countries doing exceptionally well economically (Germany and Austria). Migration and ‘othering’ is fuel to the fire of the populists. The Radical Centre can’t ignore these concerns. Imaginative, well-evidenced, well-argued responses must be offered.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    My current understanding of the British identity and immigration debate is that it is contested between universalist liberal cosmopolitan perspectives which tend to focus largely on the long run aggregate benefits economically and liberal/humanist/cosmopolitan ideals around non-discrimination and transnational human rights culturally. On the other hand, more communitarian and conservative perspectives tend to focus on both the short and long run socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-ecological impacts within a more national human rights/responsibility perspective. As such the communitarian and conservative perspectives also incorporate population issues arising out of steadily increasing resource scarcity and steadily increasing surplus energy costs and so therefore many communitarian perspectives will point towards national ecological resilience with an emphasis on green infrastructure per capita.

    Liberal ideas however have yet to adapt to resource scarcity issues, surplus energy economics and how these issues are effected by encouraging population growth. There is talk of rights to sufficiency but this does not deal directly with resource constraints per capita and so liberalism as it is, is unable to deal with a Post-Growth world which when GDP is adjusted for debt is already upon us.

    Therefore the question for liberals is how to manage notions of cosmopolitan freedom, equality, justice, autonomy and emancipation within an increasingly resource constrained world. In the first instance, if liberal cosmopolitan anthropocentic rights are to continue transcending democratic processes, then an international technocracy will be required to ensure resources are distributed to where migrants will desire to go. Market failure will obviously have disastrous consequences. Secondly, if resources are particularly scarce or are temporarily unavailable, how are the ideals of freedom, autonomy and emancipation to be managed.

    As such debates about immigration and national identity also need to incorporate issues regarding increasing resource scarcity and increasing human population levels as well as the push/pull factors that induce migration in the first place. A simple focus on long run ‘aggregate’ economic benefits and ideology will not suffice.

    Ultimately therefore, any consensus between Liberal cosmopolitan and communitarian perspectives may well require democratic financial provisions in order to finance the necessary expansion of infrastructural capacity to accommodate increased population levels as well as infrastructure to facilitate integration. I say this because even if the long run aggregate economic and fiscal benefits are positive, in the short run they are most definitely not especially regarding the required financial investment needed to increase infrastructural capacity as soon as immigrants arrive which is always best by lags and catchup, especially if immigration is uncontrolled. The exception to this is if there are relatively large government budget surpluses with no national debt.

    I say this because it is the lags and catch ups in terms of infrastructural capacity that will often cause the negative perceptions of immigration especially regarding wages and public service provisions including housing, transportation, congestion and health. Therefore the problem with uncontrolled immigration is that the lags and catchups never disappear and therefore neither will the short run negative perceptions.

    However even by increasing infrastructural capacity, this inevitably eats into green infrastructure which then diminishes food security, ecosystem services, wildlife populations and biodiversity. This obviously adds an extra layer of complexity to what is already a complex problem.

    Therefore possible policy ideas on democratic financial instruments might be:-
    1. Allowing constituencies to decide on immigration levels whether through referendums or local elections so that there is a constituency based democratic platform from which to represent different perspectives of British identity and immigration.
    2. Having an immigration impact fund that is solely financed by a discretionary tax so that supporters of immigration can contribute directly from their own resources rather than from taxpayers in general who might not agree with immigration. Again this will create a democratic platform from which to represent different perspectives of British identity and immigration.

    • Stephen Gwynne says

      Edit: Having an immigration impact fund that is solely financed by a discretionary tax so that supporters of immigration can contribute directly from their own resources rather than from taxpayers in general who might not agree with immigration so that the level of democratic taxes raised determines the level of immigration.

  2. Barry Cooper says

    I am fed up with hearing the endless economic arguments and related guestimated figures for and against Brexit. I voted to get out because I want to be free of the oncoming Soviet-style European Union. Even if it means that my family will be worse off financially.

  3. Stephen Gwynne says

    Sustainable Prosperity and Migration.

    After much thought and debate I have come to the conclusion that that we need a wide ranging study to investigate the increasing importance of migration within the context of resource constrained world.

    Too much of the current research is far too narrow in order to confirm researcher ideological bias. Therefore it is imperative that different migration scenarios are considered including who the migrants are and why and perhaps most importantly why politicians are encouraging certain types of migration and not others. In particular migration must be researched in association with the resource availability and population levels of different parts of the world. I say this because overcrowding in certain areas will inevitably cause considerable tensions unless there are considerable governmental budget surpluses to quickly expand grey infrastructure upwards rather than outwards into green infrastructure.

    Ideally population distribution will be managed as an international effort with international finances. This points to the need for an International Treaty on Migration with a commitment to financial and capital resources to build the necessary low carbon infrastructure to accommodate a growing population. Also we need to seriously review how we use resources globally. The priority should be to use resources to build the material infrastructure to satisfy the needs of a growing population with countries that are in ecological credit being the primary locations.

    Alternatively, consortiums of countries could come together in order that as a group they are in ecological credit and then sign treaties to commit themselves to sharing green and grey infrastructure with one another.

    In my opinion it would be foolish to encourage migration to countries that are already heavily in ecological debt like the UK unless the UK did form an international covenant with countries that are in ecological credit. I intend to propose this idea to DFID, the UK government Department for International Development.

    At the end of the day, we must think ecologically about our decisions regarding migration. We do not want to cause unnecessary problems simply for the sake of political ideology.

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