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Immigration and the coffee class

A cruel case for liberalism

Artillery Row

Recently, in an interview with LBC, ex-Chancellor Philip Hammond did UK voters something of a favour. He told them what much of our political elite, and others in the upper echelons of power, might be thinking in regards to immigration. Speaking to Andrew Marr, he advised that “if our economy is going to prosper, we’re going to have to bring in hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to do the jobs that are currently not being done”, such as those in hospitality and other service industries.

Prefacing his recommendations, Hammond took the tone of someone relaying a hard truth to a child. “We need labour in the UK, whether we like it or not”, he advised. You get the sense that Hammond thinks others who share his views have been too slow to speak out, or tiptoeing around Brexiteers who “didn’t know what they were voting for”. There he was to speed things up and break it down for those who don’t understand the practicalities of the modern world.

Low-paid workers can no longer afford to live where their skills are most needed

Far from coming across as the moderate pragmatist that Hammond probably thinks he is, his musings put him firmly in line with a club I call the “Coffee Class” (named after a guest on Question Time in 2017, who openly worried about who would serve her Pret coffee post-EU). The Coffee Class essentially comprises people who like high levels of immigration because they get the good stuff out of it — coffees, yes, and talented medics — but cannot imagine, let alone bring themselves to listen to, concerns about the downsides. This is why, after years of others politely spelling these out, members of the Coffee Class continue to beat the drum that says “we know better than you”. 

Frequently, however, it comes across as no more rational and no less ideological than those it considers its political opponents. Hammond’s interview offered a classic example of the Coffee Class’s proclivity for emotional reasoning, to the point of filtering out factual information. Despite the fact that net migration is at record levels — reaching 504,000 in the 12 months to June 2022this group acts as though it were at an all-time low, constituting a national emergency. Why? Because it feels that the UK has an immigration drought. Furthermore, it believes the only way to reverse economic decline is to recruit hundreds of thousands from abroad. It maintains all this even when Britain has experienced huge immigration levels whilst weakening economically, hardly indicating a definite positive relationship between the two.

Please don’t get me wrong; immigration brings many economic and social benefits to a country. The problem is that you can have too much of a good thing, which happens, for example, when infrastructure cannot keep up with population levels (something the Coffee Class isn’t always affected by). Nowhere is this more obvious than the UK’s housing sector, which cannot handle the current population, never mind many more being added to it. Across the country, property prices have soared, as demand grows without the accommodation to support it.

The effects of this supply-demand imbalance are far-reaching. The Coffee Class likes to say, for instance, that hospitality shortages are the result of Brexit. EU workers have left the country, which can therefore only be fixed through more immigration. An alternative explanation for workforce shortages is that rent reached record levels after 2016. This means low-paid workers can no longer live in the areas where their skills are most needed, as it’s too expensive (hardly helped by even higher levels of immigration, which raises housing demand). Case in point: a new survey by Dolphin Living shows that eight in ten workers — including waiters, shop workers and cleaners — are struggling to keep up with the rising cost of accommodation, with a third forced to take on extra work.

It ends up being the very thing Brexiteers were accused of: deeply right-wing

The Coffee Class doesn’t want to contemplate these truths, because that might mean doing something that could inconvenience it: improving living conditions for people, including — shock, horror! — Brits. That could be allowing new homes to be built nearby — which could mean property prices drop for the Coffee Class — so that a barista has a choice of accommodation and keeps more of their income. Dream on, because the Coffee Class isn’t going to volunteer itself for economic pain. Deep down, when you take away the moral grandeur, its goal is to keep things the same as they’ve always been, because the same means cheap. It ultimately depends on the idea that immigrants — some leaving countries less prosperous — will be more prepared to live in inadequate accommodation than Brits, to supply the low-wage economy. It doesn’t want to know how its coffee got there, so long as it arrives. That is its “progressive” worldview.

The irony to the Coffee Class’s position is that it ends up being the very thing Brexiteers were accused of: deeply right-wing. Immigration, in my view, should be about aspiration and cultural exchange; it should be as equal as possible across countries; and there should be better, more respectful arguments for it than “it keeps things cheap”. Social connection is one of its most important, yet least lauded benefits. The Coffee Class’s capitalist case for immigration, however, remains the most fashionable. Most paradoxically of all, it may have the opposite effect to the one intended. Frankly, a country that treats people solely as economic commodities deserves to have “jobs that aren’t being done”.

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