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Britain’s mass immigration hangover

Like a true addict, we power through by increasing consumption

Artillery Row

Britain has now been gorging on mass immigration for a quarter of a century, becoming increasingly dependent every year. We are still, despite thirteen years of Conservative government and Brexit, very much living in New Labour’s world, which bet our future on becoming a mere globalisation hub with mass immigration as a vital component.

For mass immigration advocates, it is a cure-all. It boosts growth, productivity, the public finances and even life satisfaction. It keeps the NHS going, our universities functioning and the crops from rotting in the fields. The only negative they are prepared to admit is a small wage reduction for native low paid workers, which, they say, the benefits easily outweigh. Beyond economic arguments, the nebulous “benefits of diversity” are extolled, usually in relation to that crucial element of national life, the availability of different varieties of restaurants. The more you read from the immigrationists, you realise that for them “mass immigration is per se a good thing”, an ideological commitment laden with a moral inevitability.

To an addict, their substance of choice is essential to their functioning. In the very short term, it is even beneficial to their wellbeing. This does not mean that they are heading down the right path.

The mass immigration of the past quarter century is corrosive to Britain

Where is the path we have gone down leading? The higher education sector relies on foreign students to pay the bills, with many simply seeing their degree course as a bureaucratic hurdle to jump on their path to eventual permanent settlement. The “health of the property market” (meaning house price inflation) depends on immigration for the population growth, which juices demand whilst supply remains flat. The NHS relies ever more on foreign doctors and nurses to make up the shortfall left by the inadequate numbers we train in the UK. Since the Brexiteers who have led the Tories since 2019 did the opposite of what their voters wanted and relaxed immigration rules, “skilled worker visas” can now be had for jobs paying just £26,200 a year — or £20,960 for some roles.

Those of us on the right of this issue know that, leaving economics aside, the mass immigration of the past quarter century is corrosive to the Britain that we are attached to. The shared basis of our common connection to the past is eroded, whilst the cultural left at the head of our institutions use increasing immigration-driven diversity to lie about Britain’s history and recast us as an ahistorical proposition country and “nation of immigrants”. However, even on the grounds which immigrationists offer for their position, Britain’s era of mass immigration has failed to deliver.

“But without immigration the economy would collapse”

Immigrationists often make their case with some variation on the economic necessity of immigration. This claim is both made sincerely, by the self-proclaimed neoliberals who think that “line goes up” should wholly determine public policy, and insincerely, by cultural leftists who don’t really care about the economy but want to sound smart and respectable.

Immigrationists disregard that the British model of immigration is just one policy choice amongst many that can be made to deal with the economic and demographic challenges that 21st century developed nations face. East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea combine lower absolute numbers of immigrants with a sharper demarcation between guest workers and permanent residents. Gulf Arab countries have high numbers but an even stricter demarcation between the two types. European countries like Denmark have a recognisably “Western” immigration model, but one that is far more restrictive than Britain’s, especially when it comes to asylum seekers. Most of these countries have performed better than Britain economically during our period of mass immigration, which in fact has largely coincided with historically low productivity growth and stagnant real wages.

When immigrationists say we can’t do without immigration, what this really means is that the economic model we have chosen (or, through laziness and short-sightedness, have allowed ourselves to fall into) can’t do without immigration. They use the (very effective) political tactic of presenting their goals as inevitable, when a simple glance around the world shows that there are many better options. To take an example from one sector, if our current way of doing things is inevitable, how do other countries keep their health systems going despite not hiring the majority of their doctors from abroad?

The reality of our immigration-driven economic model

Immigration gives us an excuse not to train enough doctors and nurses. It makes it easier for businesses to avoid productivity improvements like automation: low skilled immigrants appreciate coming to Britain because they can disappear into our unregulated labour market, doing things like staffing hand car washes (which began to automate again after Brexit and Covid cut off the supply of workers). Immigration allows our university sector to offer courses where many of the students don’t care about the quality; it’s just a cost they have to pay towards their goal of permanent settlement. Immigration means we can maintain over five million people on out of work benefits whilst relying on newcomers to plug labour shortages. In the past, Britain saw large scale internal labour migration from less to more productive areas. These days, how many working class British people would move to London (in many ways a foreign city to the rest of the country) for a working class job? Our economic model uses immigration as a poorly functioning sticking plaster over a stagnating economy and society.

Britain does attract highly skilled immigrants, too; it’s not all illegal car washers. However, global economic trends are working against Britain as a desirable destination for the best and brightest. One of the important economic stories of the 21st century has been the divergence between Britain (and Europe more widely) and America. Up until 2008, British GDP growth broadly tracked America’s, but since then the two countries have diverged significantly.

Some of this divergence is due to the strength of the dollar against the pound since 2008, and the PPP measure does not tell such a drastic story. The same trend can be seen in comparison with the rest of the Anglosphere, however: whilst Britain was richer than Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the decade up to 2007, it is now poorer than them all. It has also been overtaken by Israel and Singapore in the same time period. As Britain falls further behind its peer countries, it will find it increasingly difficult to attract highly skilled immigrants. They will not only be concerned about living standards and the value of their remittances, but will have many other options to choose from.

There is a sense of Britain’s cultural prestige falling off, too. From the “Cool Britannia” era of the mid 90s until 2016, there was a sense that Britain (specifically London) was the place for ambitious young Europeans to come and make their careers in tech, finance, etc. As one journalist and enthusiast for Cool Britannia has bemoaned, this is no longer the case.

A dawning sense of realisation

There are signs that some on the pro-immigration side are realising that the immigrationists’ promises haven’t been delivered. This recent, otherwise pro-migration New Statesman article describes for instance how “successive governments have relied on high migration to disguise the structural weaknesses of the British economy: a lack of training, investment and productivity”. It notes that our dependence on migration “signifies a failing economy — a country dependent on newcomers to boost overall GDP whilst individual living standards stagnate”. Quite! Articles like these somehow never make the connection that, perhaps, it is partly immigration itself that enables successive governments to avoid fixing Britain’s problems.

Others, such as (unsurprisingly) the Economist, double down, arguing that our problems can be solved by yet more immigration. It is this approach that our Conservative government is taking: distract the electorate with tough talk on small boats (when refugees in reality only make up only a small percentage of the total inflow, 6-18 per cent in recent years), whilst opening the doors to all other forms.

Like a true addict, we are powering through our hangover by maintaining and even increasing our consumption. Immigration has reached unprecedented levels in 2023, and we are being told to prepare for numbers of one million a year as the “new normal” in the coming decades. We are about to see what “real immigration” looks like.

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