Across the West, we are experiencing a growing cultural clash between liberals and traditionalists. It was encapsulated by Clinton versus Trump, and now by Macron against Le Pen in France.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair recognised this 10 years ago, saying: “The real dividing line to think of in modern politics has less to do with traditional positions of right versus left, more to do today with what I would call the modern choice, which is open versus closed.”
Unprecedented levels of immigration have been one of the major drivers of this new polarisation in politics. Liberals welcome and champion mass immigration as a boon to our society and our economy. Traditionalists, on the other hand, believe it has been damaging to the opportunities and culture of the indigenous population, especially those on the most modest incomes.
But this debate of whether immigration is good or bad is irrelevant and unhelpful. In an open, globalised economy, we need and will have immigration. And there are kernels of truth in both the liberal and traditionalist arguments.
All the evidence shows that immigration increases educational standards, entrepreneurialism and economic growth.
But, equally, there are some areas of this country – albeit small in number – where levels of immigration have been so high that the wages of the lowest paid have been depressed and key services have been unable to cope with the increased demand. In those areas, people – who have strong networks and few resources – cannot be expected to suddenly move elsewhere to find better opportunities. The process and funding required, in those areas, to build enough houses and equip schools and hospitals with the staffing and skills they need is simply not quick or substantial enough to meet the demand currently experienced.
The public debate we need to have on immigration is not whether it’s good or bad, but how best to control it. At the moment, the net migration target gives the impression that the government isn’t very good at doing that: today’s quarterly immigration figures will show that the target of bringing numbers down to the tens of thousands has been massively missed, yet again.
Brexit is an opportunity for politicians and policy-makers to find better ways to control immigration. Thankfully, free movement from the EU – the antithesis of a controlled system – will end. The other utopian policy that should be scrapped is the current net migration target. It is unjustifiably and arbitrarily low, which is unsurprising since the process for devising it was not scientific or comprehensive. And it is hard to achieve because a major part of it – emigration – cannot and should not be controlled.
Another reason why it is poor public policy is that it does not differentiate between types of migrants, which the public view differently and have different impacts on our society and economy. The government should introduce new, separate targets for the main types of migrants: workers, students, family members, and refugees and asylum applicants. These targets should be based on the effectiveness of the visa system and, in the case of workers and family members, on gross numbers, which should be decided after extensive consultation led by the Migration Advisory Committee.
Finally, the positive consequences of immigration that liberals champion should pay for the challenges traditionalists highlight. All new migrants who are working should pay a new class of National Insurance for two years, which should directly fund the Controlled Immigration Fund the government will soon introduce to provide additional resources to local areas struggling with high levels of immigration.
These ideas show that liberals and traditionalists need not be at war on immigration: they can come together to argue for a fairer and more effectively controlled immigration system.