Trade, Development, and Immigration

Why the political Right needs to overcome its obsession with immigration

First things first.

I believe that the vast majority of the people who want to cut net migration are neither bigots nor Xenophobes. I do not believe that these people are “scapegoating” or “demonising” migrants, and I certainly do not believe that they only hold the views they hold because they have been stirred up by the “the media” or by some populist.

Here’s what migration-sceptics believe:

They believe that successive governments have betrayed them by repeatedly promising to cut net migration, without ever actually doing it.

They believe that the economic gains that immigration was supposed to bring have either not materialised, or if they have, they have been outweighed by major costs elsewhere.

They believe that mass migration has been forced on the country by a “luxury belief” elite, which is insulated from its negative effects, and which only experiences the upsides.

They believe that immigration is happening at a scale which is both socially and economically disruptive, making integration all but impossible, while putting a huge strain on wages, public services, infrastructure, and the housing market.

All of these are points on which reasonable, well-informed people can disagree in good faith. Woke progressives have unnecessarily toxified this debate by claiming that everyone who disagrees with them is either a racist, or part of an unthinking, easily incensed mob (or both).

But I also believe that large parts of the political Right have developed an unhealthy obsession with immigration.

Let me clarify what I mean by “obsession”. A migration-obsessive is not someone who thinks that Britain would be better off with lower levels of net migration: that is a legitimate and arguable perspective. A migration-obsessive is someone who refuses to talk about anything else, who brings every political conversation back to immigration within five minutes, and who advocates policy positions which make no sense even if you accept their main premise.

Let’s take housing. I believe that it is possible to solve Britain’s housing crisis through supply-side measures alone, even in the context of high net migration. But I accept that a well-informed and reasonable person can disagree with that, and that the supply-side measures which this would require are not especially likely to happen. So I don’t have a problem with migration-sceptics who argue that the demand side needs attention, too.

But that is not what migration-obsessives do. Migration-obsessives either refuse to talk about supply-side measures at all, or, worse still, they actively attack their proponents, arguing that without a reduction in net migration, everything else is futile.

This makes no sense whatsoever. High net migration makes high volumes of housebuilding more urgent, not less. Migration-sceptics are entitled to the view that net migration should not be high in the first place – but once net migration is high, the worst thing we can do is refuse to build the additional houses required to accommodate it. Because that leads to a situation in which the newcomers have to compete with the people who are already here for a woefully inadequate housing stock (the situation we have now, in other words).

A reasonable migration-sceptic can argue that, ideally, we should aim for a combination of low immigration and high volumes of housebuilding. But there can be no argument about the fact that a combination of high migration numbers with high volumes of housebuilding is preferrable to a combination of high migration numbers with low volumes of housebuilding.

Migration-obsessives are incapable of thinking in terms of second-best solutions and minimising costs. They have become the mirror image of “FBPE” anti-Brexiteers, who have built their entire political identity around their opposition to Brexit. A sensible Brexit-sceptic should support any measure that minimises the cost of Brexit, instead of just stomping their feet, yelling “But I don’t want Brexit!!”. In the same way, a sensible migration-sceptic should support any measure that improves Britain’s ability to cope with the impact of immigration – which they can do whilst still arguing that immigration should be lower in the first place.

Net migration is currently falling, and is projected to fall further. But it is falling from a high level, and for the foreseeable future, it is not going to fall to the levels that migration-sceptics want to see. They’re entitled to criticise that. But they need to quit this habit of yelling “IMMIGRATION!!” every time someone argues for an increase the supply of housing, office space, retail space, infrastructure, energy etc. We heard you the first time.

You can make a reasonable case for tighter immigration controls without being a monomaniacal, obsessive bore about it.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

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