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Artillery Row

Young people are not as pro-immigration as you think

The idea that young people are uniformly “woke” is a silly myth

Of all the silly ideas that pervade British politics, perhaps the silliest is the notion that our young people are incorrigibly, uniformly, and uniquely “woke”. Nowhere is this flawed outlook more harmful — and more misplaced — than on immigration. Orthodox Westminster opinion holds that younger folks are immediately turned off by talk of lowering net migration, instead preferring world peace, free love, and open borders.

Like so much of our political orthodoxy, this narrative bears little relation to reality. In fact, polls consistently show that young people favour less immigration, not more, even if they also recognise the benefits that high-skilled immigration can bring. The latest figures from YouGov show that 43 per cent of 18-24s believe that immigration has been too high over the last 10 years; just 9 per cent think that it has been too low. Amongst those aged 25-49, that gulf is even larger, with 55 per cent saying too high, and 6 per cent saying too low.

The great majority of young Britons live outside of insular, socially liberal bubbles

Yes, you read that right. Young people really do support lower immigration, even if the crowing of radical university students might lead you to believe otherwise. The great majority of young Britons live outside of insular, socially liberal bubbles in places like London and Brighton, and share little in common with the ranting, raving ideologues who dominate public perception.

It’s also worth remembering that these numbers exist in a context in which migration scepticism is usually explicitly — and exclusively — pitched at older voters. That said, consider the causes and effects of high migration, and it becomes easy to see how engaging young people on this agenda could prove enormously popular.

For one, mass migration is driven by the same structural flaws as high house prices and sluggish growth. Our pathological reliance on immigration stems from a preference for lazy, quick-fix solutions which allow us to avoid wrangling with vested economic interests and fundamental structural challenges. This instinct also produces our kneejerk regulatory culture, our consistent attempts to fix the housing crisis by subsidising demand, and the continuation of the unsustainable pension triple lock — all of which are increasingly wedge issues for young voters.

Rather than training more public sector workers — or paying them more — we actively restrict the number of British students able to undertake medical training, and import carers and nurses with weaker qualifications instead. Rather than fixing our broken university funding system, we rely on international students to pick up the bill. Rather than investing in our future workforce, we rely on human quantitative easing to plug gaps and supplement topline GDP figures. Like a drug addict dutifully returning to his dealer, we no longer consider other, more difficult options before defaulting to the quick fix that so-called experts tell us mass migration provides.

Yet the results of immigration are not, to say the least, uniformly positive — and it’s young people who bear the brunt of those downsides.

Let’s start with housing. Despite the insistence of some socially liberal YIMBYs, immigration has had a palpable impact on Britain’s rising housing costs. According to the Government’s own analysis, immigration between 1991 and 2016 boosted English house prices by 21 percent. Of course, cutting immigration isn’t a silver bullet for fixing the housing crisis — we must also fix our broken planning system and increase the number of houses being built — but adding additional demand at a time of constricted supply is profoundly counterproductive.

You can also look at schools. More than 1.6 million state school pupils in England do not speak English as a first language; only 36 percent of those pupils were assessed as “fluent” in English, as of February 2020. For young families, the prospect of sending a child into a school full of pupils who will need additional attention from teachers just to be able to communicate fluently is a daunting one.

Increasingly, this goes beyond public services too. Many liberal young people are uncomfortable with the illiberal forces which have been unleashed by decades of failed integration. Just ask Bella Wallersteiner, the young liberal conservative who last week took to the Telegraph to argue that “migrant numbers will need to come down” in light of declining social cohesion and rising extremism.

Despite all of this, arguments in favour of cutting migration are too often based on biscuit-tin sentimentality, espoused by right-wing politicians who love to wax nostalgic about the “good old days”. The messengers are too often fusty dinosaurs, whose discomfort with immigration stems from a provincial conservatism that similarly abhors lager beer and milky coffee. Is it any wonder that their ideas have failed to take hold as strongly as one might expect among the next generation?

Of course, it would be delusional to pretend that this will be straightforward. There are undoubtedly social disincentives to robust migration scepticism. In an age of Instagram infographics and social media mobs, poking your head above the parapet on an issue as charged as this can be challenging.

In short, we must Make Migration Controls Cool Again

The key to converting this fledgling sentiment into real political upside is twofold. First, continue to demonstrate how mass migration materially worsens their material conditions. Second, make migration scepticism fit within a broader agenda which prizes dynamism, vitality, and progress — including by extolling the benefits of high-quality, high-skilled migration. The latter point is crucial; nascent migration sceptics must have cover to discuss their views without worrying that they’re beginning to sound like their grandparents. In short, we must Make Migration Controls Cool Again.

An insurgent political pitch, which pledged to roll back the quangocracy, cut immigration, and unpick vested economic interests has the potential to be enormously popular amongst young people. That means more investment in technology to reduce demand for low-skilled labour, more support for aspiring families, and more training opportunities in fields where we need skilled workers.

Tie this up with a “back to basics” approach on issues like housing and taxation, and a youthful, positive PR strategy, and it becomes easy to see how the dormant conservatism of young people could once again be unleashed. Yet if Conservatives fail to get this right, a period of ill-favour with the general public could turn into long-term extinction.

Instead of obsessing over an imagined past, migration sceptics would be far better served by rediscovering a love of the future. A vision of high growth, high-tech, high-status Britain is entirely consistent with creating an immigration system that prizes quality over quantity. After all, beleaguered working-age people stand to gain most from a restructuring of our economic model. Writing to Frances Burney in 1782, it was Edmund Burke who said that “the arrogance of age must submit to be taught by youth”; in our current political climate, these are words to live by.

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