As I am away this week, there are no new posts, but I am delving into the archives for material not previously published on Pandaemonium. Back in 2004 I made a programme for BBC Radio 4’s Analysis strand on the immigration debate, contrasting the arguments of open door, closed door and managed migration advocates. Among those taking part were David Coleman, Professor of Demography, University of Oxford; Geoff Dench, of the Institute of Community Studies; Nigel Harris, Emeritus Professor of Economics, University College London; Andrew Simms, Policy Director, New Economics Foundation; Sarah Spencer,Director of Policy, Oxford University Centre on Migration, Policy and Society; and Suke Wolton,Tutor in politics, Regents College, Oxford.

The debate is as relevant now as it was a decade ago. So, here is a transcript of that broadcast. If you would rather listen than read, there is also an audio of the broadcast. For more recent discussions of immigration see my review of Paul Collier’s Exodus and essay on the Lampedusa disaster and the morality of Fortress Europe.

opening door

‘An open road to disaster?’

Analysis, BBC Radio 4, 18 March 2004

KENAN MALIK   Forget all that hoohah about benefit tourists. From 1st of May, Britain will welcome with open arms anyone from the new EU countries who wants to work here. Why? Because it’s good for the economy. So why not lay out the welcome mat for the rest of the world, too?

SUKE WOLTON   What is the reason we have too few houses in Britain? It’s because we have too few builders at the moment. What is the reason that we don’t have enough NHS resources at the moment? Well we have too few NHS workers. It’s true. We do not have enough doctors, we do not have enough nurses. Everybody’s crying out for plumbers at the moment. We do not have enough people in Britain. That’s the reason that everybody’s complaining that we don’t have these things… It’s not that we don’t have the things we want; it’s that we don’t have the people to make the things that we need.

KENAN MALIK   Suke Wolton, tutor in politics at Regents College, Oxford. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the people. We haven’t got enough of them. So let’s open the door and let them all in. But whatever happened to the idea that it’s the job of a government to decide who we want in the country and how many?

SUKE WOLTON   I think it’s one of those things which it’s a mistake to pretend that you could master it. Nobody says, ‘Oh we’re going to master the stock market today, oh we’re going to have it clear that the FTSE index is going to stay in a certain way.’ Nobody would be so foolish. I think the same has to be said about immigration controls.

There are two ways of looking at factors that affect immigration and they’ve been broadly sort of identified as well as pull factors and push factors – push factors being things that affect people in their country of origin and why they might move; pull factors being what happens here in Britain and how that affects whether people move and stuff. All studies so far that have been done on how migration is affected have shown that pull factors are minimal in terms of actually affecting whether people come to Britain or not. The only thing that is important really in terms of people’s migration is the economy and the state of the job market

KENAN MALIK   For all the bitter debates about immigration and asylum, no one disputes the idea that we should control the flow of people into this country. No one, that is, apart from a few brave souls who want to think the unthinkable and scrap controls altogether. Are they mad? No, they say, not only is controlling immigration impossible but also undesirable. Nigel Harris, Emeritus Professor of Economics at University College London.

NIGEL HARRIS   The world is moving towards a single economy, a single world economy, that means in theoretical terms integration of capital and trade and ultimately labour. Governments at the moment control the borders and they’re trying to accommodate the need for increased mobility through increased regulation. What that means is when Britain needs more software programmers, they set a particular target and invite people to come into the country. They can’t possibly predict in that field any more than they can in any other field what demand is likely to be. The result of that was that they caught… just as the numbers were increasing, the dotcom boom collapsed. There were a whole lot of people who came in and were stranded or had to go out and so on. So I don’t believe governments can plan labour demand and so they can’t operate a regulatory system.

KENAN MALIK  Are you not placing great faith in the ability of the free market to regulate labour flows?

NIGEL HARRIS   Certainly more than I invest in governments. I mean those are the two options, aren’t they – either governments or free markets – and between that the free market is much better than governments in regulating labour supply and demand.

jacob lawrence great migration pan3

KENAN MALIK   The debate about whether or not there should be an open door to immigrants is not a debate between left and right. On the one side, we find free marketers holding hands with campaigners for immigration rights in demanding the freedom of movement across borders. On the other side, you may find conservatives, left wing activists and, of course, racists all making the case for tighter curbs on immigration. The critics of the open door seem to have not just public opinion but commonsense on their side. After all, the state may not be very good at matching labour supply and demand. But do we really want to leave it all to the market?

GEOFF DENCH   I think the impact would be really quite devastating because I’m sure from the contacts that I’ve had, the research I’ve done that there are absolutely millions of people who would want to come in and would be prepared to live in a very low standard of living in order to be here and have a chance to live here, and that this would create tremendous conflicts and difficulties with the labour market.

ANDREW SIMMS   I think the argument for complete open borders would be the argument for a complete free market per se. It would be the argument that there should be no barriers to the movement of either trade or finance or people. I personally think, given the state that the world is in and given the great disparities that exist within the world, that if you did that it would be a recipe for chaos.

KENAN MALIK   Geoff Dench of the Institute of Community Studies, based in East London, and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation. The logic of their argument seems indisputable. Open the door to everyone and everyone will walk in. So how does Nigel Harris respond?

NIGEL HARRIS   Well that’s a reasonable fear. But you ask the same question about internally – what is to stop people coming to London. Nothing. People come into London and leave without restriction. The same would in principle be true in the world…

KENAN MALIK   But the wage differential between Beijing and London is far greater than a wage differential between Manchester and London, so would not it be more likely that, say, Chinese cocklepickers come to Britain because even if they’re only earning a pound a day, as it’s been alleged, they’re still earning more than they would back home?

NIGEL HARRIS   Yes, yes, that’s the correct point except that the costs of getting here are so high that people by and large can’t do it. I mean leave aside the fact that the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to leave their homes, even though you would think on the face of it they ought to want to leave their homes because their homes are so awful. And the real value of what they earn here is vastly increased when they go home. But in fact the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to move and, even more, they don’t have the costs of moving, so moving from China to Britain is such an extraordinarily fraught and expensive operation that relatively few people do it.


KENAN MALIK   These days the cost of a Easyjet fare will take you from Budapest to Luton, and it’s not much more to fly in from Beijing. Immigration only becomes expensive when it’s illegal and you have to pay traffickers to smuggle you across borders. Make all immigration legal and it becomes dirt cheap. Of course, immigrants suffer more than simply a financial burden. They have to leave their family behind, uproot themselves from all that is familiar, often facing hostility in their new country. This is why, in relative terms, very few people actually migrate. Nevertheless, the idea that high cost will stop people coming through an open door seems a bit of a hit and hope policy. Supporters of open borders argue, though, that it’s when you impose controls that you create the problems of mass influx. Suke Wolton.

SUKE WOLTON   If the borders were more open people would be able to go back and forth more easily and they would be able to say, ‘No this is not a good situation, this is too much hardship’, or ‘I would rather be with my family’, or ‘I’ve done some… I’ve been here for a harvest, I’ve been here for a particular season, I won’t stay the winter, I’ll go home.’ We have a situation now which once people have risked their lives to enter into a country and then risked their constant discovery finding work, they’re in a position of extreme vulnerability and they can be easily exploited. But they also dare not go home. Whereas if we did the opposite and had the border more permeable and people able to travel backwards and forwards, we could have a situation where people are able to assess what the situation is, perhaps work for a few months, then go back, then come back again, come back you know and decide for themselves which country they want to be a citizen as a positive decision rather than as one which they have to do because there’s no other way round it.

KENAN MALIK   The evidence suggests she may be right. In the 1950s many immigrants to Britain were single men who expected to return home to their families within a few years. When the government decided to impose controls – the first immigration act came into force in 1962 – there was a surge of people trying to get in before the door closed. And temporary migrants had little choice but to settle here and bring their families over. In America, millions of Mexican agricultural workers who had migrated with the seasons were forced to settle permanently (and illegally) when the US government imposed controls on their movement. But what about the impact on local workers? Uncontrolled immigration must surely make it more difficult for locals to find jobs. And if employers have a constant supply of cheap labour, it must force down wages of British workers. Not so, says Nigel Harris.

NIGEL HARRIS   There were up to two hundred econometric studies done in the United States in different localities at different times in order to try to detect whether there was a decline in wages or an increase in unemployment of native workers as a result of a significant inflow of immigrants and in general they could find no trace whatsoever. And that is because the immigrants are moving into the jobs that the native workers won’t do. They’re not competing. Of course that’s not true all the way through – the software programmers are competing, the doctors are competing – but in terms of unskilled workers, which is where many of the fears are expressed, they aren’t competing. Furthermore, the immigrants are doing jobs which are necessary for the productivity of higher skilled workers to be realised. If there aren’t porters and cleaners and laundry workers and all the rest of it, the hospital breaks down and the doctors and nurses can’t do their work.

KENAN MALIK   This might seem counterintuitive but there appears to be evidence for this. A Home Office study published last year concluded that ‘the perception that immigrants take away jobs from the existing population, or that immigrants depress wages of exiting workers, do not confirmation in the analysis of the data.’ Indeed, Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation suggests that without immigration, local workers and communities would in fact be worse off.

ANDREW SIMMS   Our research and a lot of other research shows that people who come to this country display much greater entrepreneurial flair. So even if they begin by doing the dirty, dangerous and difficult jobs, there’s a lot of evidence to show that new immigrants to Britain display huge amounts of energy and initiative and go on to make much larger contributions to the wider economy. Where first or second generation immigrants in this country are active in the local economy, you’re seeing increases in the level of average wages in those areas and you’re seeing increases in the general availability of employment opportunities and jobs. So actually there’s a huge lot of myths that we have to shoot down. That there is a kind of one for one substitution of jobs with people coming in with people already living here that is simply not the case as we’ve already said. Immigrants coming to this country are doing jobs that otherwise simply would not get done on the one hand and, on the other hand, because of the way that they are on the front line of breathing life back into communities that otherwise are very often dying, they’re actually bringing new opportunities.

KENAN MALIK   But why don’t local workers want to take the jobs that immigrants eventually fill? It’s true that by European standards Britain has a low unemployment rate. There are nevertheless a million people on the dole, a figure we used to consider as high. Geoff Dench of the Institute of Community Studies.

GEOFF DENCH   If you use immigration to solve the problem of filling jobs that people don’t want to do, you create throughout the economic system an incentive not to take certain jobs seriously, just to regard them as things that can be done by people coming in from outside. And this doesn’t solve the problem because those people then come in. They’re rightly, treated as full citizens with choice of what they want to do themselves. And their children won’t want to do those jobs, so that you’re setting yourself into a position where you constantly need new immigrants in order to balance your economy and I think that the overall indirect effects of this are very harmful to the economy.

KENAN MALIK   In effect you’re suggesting that the kinds of jobs to which migrants are attracted now could easily be filled by local workers, yet we know that migrants are attracted to Britain precisely because locals don’t fill those jobs. So are you suggesting that local workers should be forced to fill the jobs they don’t want to do?

GEOFF DENCH   It’s not a matter of forcing people. I think it’s more a matter of restoring some sense that these jobs are important; and if they’re seen as important, then there are local people who are not working who would do them. What is needed is much more sense that all jobs are important in the economy and maybe they need different conditions of work, different levels of payment, different this or that, but they’re all important and that there is a sense in which respect is owing to all of the people who play a part in the system. I think that this is what’s gone wrong.

lubaina himid between the two my heart is balanced

KENAN MALIK   Respect is certainly important. But can it really be bought by excluding immigrants? Any more, for instance, than we can turn cleaning into a respected male profession by banning women from the workforce? The fact that immigrants are usually forced to take low status jobs does not mean that without immigrants all jobs would be high status.

Yes, we need to improve work conditions for those at the bottom. But there can be no denying Britain’s need for immigrant labour. Take construction. The trade magazine Building estimates that the industry needs 80,000 new workers a year, largely to replace people who are retiring. There are currently 500,000 vacancies in the South East alone. Yet, only 18,500 apprentices are coming through every year. Even a coercive workfare system under which the unemployed are frogmarched from the dole office to the building site will not make up the shortfall. Many employers, on the other hand, like the current regime of immigration controls, because it gives them a large pool of illegal workers upon which to draw. Workers, in other words, without rights or protection. The answer to these problems, many argue, is for the government to manage migration in a more active fashion. Sarah Spencer is Director of Policy research at Oxford University’s Centre on Migration, and an advisor to a number of government committees.

SARAH SPENCER   The challenge for government is to create legal channels which first of all ensure that anyone who has a human right to come, can come – that we don’t divide families, that we provide protection to people facing persecution – and, secondly, legal channels which match labour migrants to the job vacancies: the skill vacancies that we have and the vacancies for low-skilled jobs, so that the people who are coming in can move into jobs and make an economic and social contribution. If the controls are too tight, then there will be huge incentives for people to come and stay illegally. If the controls are not there at all, if we had open borders, then more people would come than there were jobs to go around and that would create tensions on the ground, so the trick in managing migration is to try and get that balance right.

KENAN MALIK   Who could possibly argue with that? Except that if the legal channels were broad enough to allow anyone to enter who wished to, it would effectively be an open door. If they were narrow enough to exclude many potential immigrants, it would require heavy policing and recreate the problem of illegals. That’s the dilemma of managed migration. Sarah Spencer again.

SARAH SPENCER   Any government which offers the public perfection, which suggests that it control numbers absolutely is only going to disappoint and further sap public confidence in the government’s ability to manage migration in their interests. Migration is inherently anarchic, if you like. The best that a government can offer is that it will seek to manage migration through many different policy levers, including enforcement, in order to channel it where it’s going to do most good and create the least difficulties.

marcus irving journey

KENAN MALIK   The government has taken such ideas seriously enough to set up a Managed Migration Section in the Home Office. David Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford University, isn’t impressed.

DAVID COLEMAN   I don’t think that a managed migration policy is really feasible in the way that the government envisages it for all sorts of reasons – the main one being that I think that a managed migration policy is a kind of verbal improvement over a migration situation which is not properly under… under control. I think that the general issue of relatively rapid growth of populations of foreign origin is one which is troubling all of Europe to varying degrees and not just Britain. I think it’s a problem for a variety of reasons. It’s a problem because some of those populations bring with them very distinct cultural habits which create difficulties for themselves and for any welfare state in which they are situated – I’m thinking of large family size, of low workforce participation, of low levels of education and all of that. That is more a question of immigrants rather than of people born in Britain, although obviously the numbers are so large it gets transmitted to the second and third generation in Britain and also throughout Europe where these problems are quite widespread.

KENAN MALIK   The debate about the economic benefits of migration, David Coleman suggests, misses the point.

DAVID COLEMAN   I think given that I feel that the economic benefits of migration are marginal… then it is indeed the social and demographic dimension which is important. There are no benefits accruing to population growth or population size it is quite clear looking at all the different populations of western Europe. This is by British historical standards a very large increase indeed.

KENAN MALIK   The net inflow of people into Britain last year was around 150,000. Is that  such a great number in a population of 60 million? It would comfortably fit into two Millennium stadia.

DAVID COLEMAN  A hundred and fifty thousand, it seems to me, is a very large number indeed it means that you have to build effectively a city the size of Oxford every year to accommodate the additional population. And this is very big news indeed. It would not take very long at that rate to cover the greater part of the South East of the country where of course the majority of immigrants go to live there not going to the highlands of Scotland they are not going to Northern Ireland. It’ll make the Southern part of the country very, very powerfully overcrowded and, quite independently of issues of culture, simply in terms of numbers it is something which no one planned for, no one intended, from which no good consequences will come and which will produce some really very serious problems indeed for the whole of the appearance and structure of the Southern part of the country.

SUKE WOLTON   I have heard this before. I have always found it difficult to understand because every time I take a plane anywhere and I look down on Britain all I can see is green and there’s just lots of green. So I don’t really see the preoccupation with Britain being overcrowded.

KENAN MALIK   Suke Wolton.

SUKE WOLTON   I think there is a problem with lack of housing, but then I think that’s largely been caused by lack of having builders. I think actually we’ve got lack of people that are able to do the things that we need being done. We need the people in order to have the resources in hospitals, we need the teachers to be able to teach in the schools. It’s these sort of workers that we lack so crucially at the moment and if we don’t have more people then we cant do those and that is when we feel tight and that’s when we feel overburdened.

KENAN MALIK   What do you say to those people who say that if you had increased immigration, continued population growth, what you’ll have is more overcrowding in inner cities, more congestion, etc. It will reduc e the quality of life, the quality of life is bad enough as it is. If we increase the population, it will deteriorate even further.

SUKE WOLTON   If that were the case then we’d have people coming to us saying you can’t possibly live in the city centre of London. But the city centre of London has the highest property prices, so evidently people do want to live in the city centre of London. If you thought that living in a place which was crowded was awful, then surely nobody would want to live in New York or Manhattan? I just don’t see any evidence for saying that we don’t like living next door to somebody.

jacob lawrence 2

KENAN MALIK   There’s a difference, of course, between living cheek by jowl in Mayfair or Manhattan and living cheek by jowl in Bethnal Green or Brooklyn. And that’s the problem of continued large scale immigration: not so much an overcrowded island, as the concentration of newcomers in areas which have the greatest problems with a lack of resources. The dilemma of an open door immigration policy is that people can be a burden as well as a benefit. There’s no guarantee, even if we welcome thousands of new builders into Britain, that new houses will be built. That takes political will, as well as people. But, then, if we were less obsessed with stopping people coming in, perhaps we could think more clearly about the kinds of policies needed to make life better for those already here: policies to increase house building, provide the right kinds of training and ease integration. For Geoff Dench, though, the costs of immigration will always be too great.

GEOFF DENCH   I think it’s impossible to run a country properly unless you give some reward and some stake for loyalty to the system. The elite denies really that there is any such thing as national legitimacy, that there is a country that has got a heritage of interests and people and their antecedents have worked within it and have some legitimate stake in it. And I think it’s this denial that there is any sort of national stake that ordinary people themselves feel that creates the biggest misunderstandings between ordinary people and the government at the moment.

KENAN MALIK   Are you saying that the problem isn’t immigration as such but the fact that immigrants are accorded the same rights as everybody else in the country to housing, to jobs and so on?

GEOFF DENCH   Yes, I mean that does make a tremendous difference because it means that there are all sorts of extra incentives for them to come. They’re not coming in the way that migrants would have done a few generations ago – to really struggle for a few years to start building up a small stake in the country themselves so that they can bring people in – and this was what brought out the strongest contributions from immigrants to the country and indeed to other countries. But if they can come and immediately get access to the resources on a basis of equality with other people, then this tremendously increases both their motivation to come and the tensions with people whose families have been living here for a long time afterwards.

KENAN MALIK   Would you argue then for a two-tier employment system, welfare system and so on?

GEOFF DENCH   It’s very difficult to do that. Once you’ve got a welfare state to have different… different grades of citizens and all of the various discriminations that arise from that, especially given that the majority of the people coming will be racially different from the people who are already here, I mean of itself is likely a thing to promote all sorts of conflicts. And I think it in many ways is better to think in terms of trying to limit the volume of movement at any time, have a continuous flow in all directions but not to have a massive flow at any time because it’s the volume of the flow, I think, that creates the problems.

h the door

KENAN MALIK   It’s true that many people feel they have no stake in the system. A disenchantment that runs particularly deep within many white working class communities, the kind of communities Geoff Dench wishes to defend. But can one really build a sense of inclusion simply by excluding others? After all, pre-immigration Britain wasn’t exactly a working class paradise. David Coleman insists though that mass immigration has transformed Britain for the worse.

DAVID COLEMAN   I think generally speaking its a problem of the rights of the ordinary people of Britain who’ve first of all been promised time and time again that the situation would not develop and it has. It is a question of the as it were dethronement of what they take to be their national identity and their history – because, after all, there are now substantially growing areas in many of our major cities which are in some important respects rather more like foreign countries than those of the ordinary English domestic scene. They’re not parts of the country where most English people will want to go.

KENAN MALIK   Immigration has clearly brought about major changes to this country, creating in some white communities a well of resentment and a nostalgia for the old pre-immigration Britain. Yet, even had Britain not been the destination for large scale immigration, British society today would have been vastly different from that of half a century ago. And there still would have been those for whom England had ceased to be England. For whom increasingly large parts of the country had ceased to be the kind of country which they had been brought up in and in which they felt at home. This is really not an argument against open door immigration specifically, but against all large scale social change. And for Suke Wolton, there’s more than one way to change a society for the worse.

SUKE WOLTON   If we step back and think well what is it that we’re trying to hold onto, what’s important about being British, well I can list lots of things that I hold to be important and are worth hanging onto. I mean I suppose one of the most clear examples for me you can give today is I would have thought that one of the things we should uphold in British tradition is the right of habeas corpus, the right not to be detained without trial. This is exactly what David Blunkett in the name of upholding immigration controls has now taken away in Britain. That is a significant change to our sense of what we mean to be British in terms of our rights to freedom and I think it’s very important that if we think that it’s important to be British that we uphold what is right, what we’ve learned about being British – i.e. our upholding our right to be free – and we’ve just lost that.

KENAN MALIK   The debate about immigration is not about whether we want to hold onto certain values but which ones? Control over borders or the protection of civil liberties? Continuity in the social landscape or a dynamic economy? Open borders would be a leap into the unknown, and might prove an open door to disaster. Controlling immigration is the safe option. But we also know that it doesn’t really work. Tens of thousands of illegal immigrants still enter the country every year. Controlling immigration is neither as easy nor as sensible as it might first appear; an open door policy is not as outrageous as it might seem. Both embody different visions of the kind of Britain in which we want to live. Both pose a raft of practical problems. The trouble is, given our current obsession with keeping people out, there’s little chance of a reasoned discussion about which might be better.


This edition of Analysis was produced by Richard Vadon and edited by Nicola Meyrick. It was first broadcast on 18 March 2004. Transcript © BBC

The images are: Jacob Lawrence, Migration Panel No3; Caroline Wright, Migration No 4; Lubaina Himid, Between the Two My Heart is Balanced  (From the Tate exhibition Migrations: Journeys into British Art’, January-August 2012); Marcus Irving, Journey;  Jacob Lawrence, from the Migration series; and ‘Closed door’ by H, part of the Refugee Art Project.


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