Summary of the discussion, 2nd February 2017
A report in the “Times” said that Britons were more likely to live abroad than most other West European nations (7.6% born in the UK have emigrated- higher are Portugal 22.3% and Ireland 11.7%; but many others are lower- Spain 2.7%, France 3.3%, Italy 4.9%, Germany 5%, Sweden 3.4%).
The Old Testament Hebrews were the “travellers” of their day- moving from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt, falling into slavery in Egypt, escaping and finally occupying Canaan. Free movement of people has always been both welcomed and resisted- perhaps equally. Suspicion of “newcomers” is a normal human reaction until it is recognised that they can contribute as much to the community as they take from it.
Does Britain’s “globe-trotting” tendency derive from the UK’s history of Empire? The Industrial Revolution created world-wide links, bringing manufacturing wealth to Britain, often destroying industry in colonies and restricting them to being exporters of raw materials. Later Germany and the USA rivalled and overtook Britain’s manufacturing success. Today industry is becoming global again, chasing cheap labour and creating resentment among abandoned workers in the “rust belts” of Europe and North America.
It appears that gross inequalities are inevitable- either between countries or within countries. But is this acceptable? If not, what can be done about it? It is clear that political policies can choose inequality- not deliberately, but as the “lesser of two evils”. For example, one UK Chancellor said that a level of unemployment was necessary in order to “control inflation”, which meant that welfare benefits would be necessary for those who were, through their unemployment, “carrying the burden” of making the economy more efficient. But today “austerity” means that welfare provision and social care are under attack. This flies in the face of research that shows that greater equality is good for everyone (not just for the poor).
Greater inequality increases the pressure for people to move in search of a better future- and increases the social and political problems involved with that. Some measures to deal responsibly with this are worth discussing- for example the Yanis Varoufakis suggestion that countries should gain access to free movement in a single market only if their minimum wage levels (at “purchasing power parity”- ie taking local cost of living into account) are equivalent to those of the other countries in the single market. Responsible management of movement is far better than either a “free for all” or a total block.
But we need to remember that the management of change, whether of immigration or any other process, is never problem-free or perfect. A parallel example might be slum-clearance in major cities: many reasonable and repairable houses were demolished along with those unfit for human habitation, because it was easier and cheaper to redevelop whole areas, rather than embark on a piecemeal rebuilding of individual streets or terraces. Co-operation can have serious flaws, but to abandon it altogether risks far worse.