There was much glee about yesterday’s publication of a report into the economic impact of immigration, which concluded eastern Europeans had provided a net benefit of £4.4 billion to the UK economy.
There was far less mention of the fact that immigrants from outside Europe in the same period cost the taxpayers £118 billion.
But as Christopher Caldwell observed in Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the immigration debate is not about economics, for
‘the social, spiritual, and political effects of immigration are huge and enduring, while the economic effects are puny and transitory. If, like certain Europeans, you are infuriated by polyglot markets and street signs written in Polish, Urdu, and Arabic, sacrificing 0.0035 of your economy would be a pittance to pay for starting to get your country back. If, like other Europeans, you view immigration as a lifeline of excitement, worldliness, and palatable cuisine thrown to your drab and provincial country, then immigration would be a bargain even if it imposed a significant economic cost.’
That figure of £118 billion is not entirely fair, of course, because the low labour participation of Bangladeshis and Pakistanis reflects the fact many of them are doing a job Brits don’t do: having families. And the benefits of eastern European immigration will in the long term have to take into account that these mostly young migrants will get old and need their pensions paid, and will have children who will be a net drain on the economy (working households without children pay the exchequer twice what they receive back so it is little surprise that Poles are a benefit). At that point if we want to continue to benefit financially we must continue to import more young workers, who in turn will grow old and have kids etc. I don’t know about you but I can see one tiny, weenie little glitch with this economic model.
People writing for socially liberal pro-immigration publications like to complain that the immigration debate isn’t rational - the implication being that it’s irrational to not want overwhelming social change that might economically benefit you in the short term (and would certainly benefit your boss). Of course it’s an irrational debate - it’s a visceral subject.
But one of the ways we could make the debate more rational is to stop talking about ‘immigrants’ as if they were one thing; as these figures show, there is a huge difference between migrants from the second and third worlds; there is perhaps an even bigger difference between migrants from the first.
As this week’s figures showed, migration from western Europe really does bring undisputed economic benefits; that is because movement between rich countries tends to largely involve the highly educated and highly skilled, and what is more those traits tend to be inherited by the second and third generation (again, one of the strange aspects of the immigration debate is that the long-term effects, ie the second-generation, are ignored).
Go to a school in Hampstead or Highgate and you’ll see that London has successfully attracted quite a large section of the highly-skilled elite of France, Germany and the Netherlands, which will be to our lasting benefit. As I argue in my book, there is no real point in having immigration restrictions on other first world countries, including the United States, Australia and Japan, as the economic and social costs are very low and the benefits high.
But what has this to do with Tower Hamlets down the road, where - after Jack Straw abolished the restrictions on family migration - over 60 per cent of marriages by British-born Bangladeshis were at one point to people from the old country? Culturally, socially, politically and economically, fetching-marriage immigration is the least beneficial type to our country, bringing low-skilled migrants and reversing integration. Still, at least it has hugely increased diversity in Tower Hamlets politics.
And while roughly three-quarters of Somali-born people here are in social housing, well below 1 per cent of Americans are. How can anyone possibly approach the subject and lump these two together?
If you want to have a rational debate about the subject, why not be clear about those facts and we will be better placed to cherry pick the best migrants, which is after all what most people actually want.
As a rule immigration from the first world brings overwhelming economic and social benefits, while immigration from the developing world does the opposite; migration from eastern Europe is somewhere in-between. That’s a very rough rule of thumb but it is at least clearer and more rational than simply identifying oneself as either ‘pro’ or ‘anti-immigration’.