A few years ago I worked on a BBC series about what being British meant to people across the United Kingdom. A taxi driver who had heard the series used the opportunity of being stuck in heavy traffic, with me in the back seat, to offer his critique of all the things I got wrong. He explained he wanted to see more “English” faces on television. Immigrants were taking over the country. Some of them didn’t drink alcohol – very un-British – so English pubs were closing down.
When there was a pause for breath I jumped in to suggest that migration was a central part of British history. The seas were talked about as a barrier or defence against foreign threats but mostly they were a convenient method of transport for people who might want to come here. Almost all of us were in families descended from migrants, I said. The driver was having none of it. His family were “pure” English “for generations”. Then I noticed his taxi identity card. His name was Fleming.
“From Flanders,” I said. “Flemish Belgian”.
Silence in the cab, although Mr Fleming was in good company. Shakespeare’s great patriotic English hero John of Gaunt in his great speech in Richard II talks of England as “this scept’red isle” but he then suggests (a bit like Mr Fleming) that things were getting worse and the country he loved was going to the dogs. The play was written in about 1595. The expansion of British influence around the globe was still to come. But who was John of Gaunt? He was Jean de Ghent, an immigrant from Flanders dressed up in Shakespearean genius but not a native-born, heart-of-oak Englishman. Bloody foreigners. They come over here and take our best soliloquies.
“You cannot have an open liberal market economy and want less immigration at the same time. It just doesn’t work”
The UK’s migrant roots tell a story of diversity that we see in names such as Farage, Sunak, Kwarteng and Patel, plus everyone from William of Orange to Disraeli and various Windsors, (aka the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha). Queen Victoria was not a migrant, but she spoke German as her first language. Her German husband came to England as a nineteenth-century boat person. Historically we have generally failed to “Stop the boats” even though – like the taxi driver – some complain that the boats nowadays are different. They don’t bring royalty but the flotsam and jetsam of the world, supposedly feckless folk who seize the advantages of the largesse of our world-beating benefits system while simultaneously stealing jobs from “Us”, the deserving natives.
The truth is that assimilation is part of our great British success story, even if some – like the taxi driver and our current home secretary – make up a different narrative of failure. Britain even let in the Eslers in the seventeenth century. My family were Protestant refugees from the 30 Years War in Germany, escaping Bavaria and meeting their saviours in the Scottish army somewhere between Lübeck and Rostock. They settled in Argyllshire and County Antrim.
Britain’s big migration question therefore clashes with Suella Braverman’s nonsensical claim that multiculturalism has somehow failed Britain. (Really? Aren’t we so multicultural we even tolerate – and promote – uselessness in government?) But why do so many of us believe myths about migration? Some of the answers come in an extraordinary and compelling new book from Hein de Haas. He’s a Dutch sociologist and geographer who has lived and worked in the Netherlands, Morocco and the UK. He is currently a professor at the University of Amsterdam and also a founding member of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford.
His book How Migration Really Works – A Factual Guide to the Most Divisive Issue in Politics takes two dozen myths about migration and ruthlessly demolishes them. He asks key questions about a massive political failure in Britain and across the world. Those questions include: “Why have politicians across the West failed to curb immigration despite massive investments of taxpayer money in border enforcement? Why is illegal migration continuing despite politicians’ promises to destroy the business model of the smugglers? Why have governments been so ineffective in preventing the exploitation of migrant workers despite their repeated promises to viciously crack down on such abuses? How have politicians got away with selling the same false promises or outright lies about immigration? And, most importantly, what policies can we put in place to deal more effectively with immigration?”
It’s a roll call of failure. And the facts matter to de Haas even if, as he admits from the start of the book, they rarely matter to governments across the world. Politicians often prefer to use migration and fear of “the Other” as a wedge issue to engage and alarm voters and chime with their prejudices and delusions. De Haas clearly wrote the book “out of a deep sense of urgency”, in frustration after decades of research have failed to guide politicians towards the facts. He says that “so little” factual research features in the public political debate, and that “partly explains why policies frequently fail or even backfire”. Almost all policy initiatives on immigration end up as empty slogans because “just spreading ‘facts’ doesn’t work” and “politicians and other policymakers will ignore the facts they find inconvenient”.
The book opens with a revealing anecdote. After one of de Haas’s many attempts to educate policymakers, he was congratulated for his “fascinating presentation”, but it had no impact. A policymaker admitted that “we can never implement your insights because that would be political suicide”. That’s why we can all remember the slogans “Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” and “Stop the boats” – but no one can remember a truly successful policy that matches the glib headlines.
De Haas has given up on directly trying to persuade politicians. Instead he dedicates the book to “you, the general reader” in the hope that as citizens we will see through the rhetoric of “politicians, pundits and experts” who pander to the prejudices of those like the Flemish-British taxi driver. Each of the two dozen chapters therefore takes a myth and busts it, beginning with “migration is at an all-time high” (wrong) and “borders are beyond control” (they’re not). He moves on to “the world is facing a refugee crisis” (not quite that simple) and the idea that “we don’t need migrant workers” (we do, although that’s a tricky one we’ll explore shortly).
After planting facts to explode those initial myths, de Haas continues by explaining that immigrants do not “steal” jobs, nor do they generally drive down wages, nor undermine the welfare state. He also tackles why some on the political Left misuse migration by connecting it with climate change in the way they sometimes do. As he tells me when I catch up with him: “Climate activists, I think, are pretty intellectually dishonest by using the mass migration fear as well.” In other words, migration is “not just an issue of the far Right or anything like that”.
We begin our conversation discussing why political leaders don’t seem interested in the facts. His answer is brutal. Politicians actually often like the immigration “problem” because it divides voters, whips up support for some leaders and “because migration is an ideal topic to generate fear, to use migration for a very different agenda, both from the Left and the Right”.
Fear of the Other has a long history: “Since the end of the Cold War western politicians have been waging a war on immigration,” de Haas tells me and recites the well-worn vocabulary of “take back control and fix our broken immigration system” or “crack down on people smugglers”. He moves on to an obvious example of failure in Europe (including the UK): “Since 1991 we have been trying to stop trans-Mediterranean migration. We know from research it’s impossible to stop people crossing the Mediterranean as long as there’s jobs (in Europe) and conflicts in origin countries. But after having recycled the same old narratives, the same old policies for over three decades now, there is no way back because it would expose the misinformation, and often lies, that we’ve been exposed to.” He then describes what might be called the immigration paradox, namely that the more politicians whip up resentment and offer simple solutions to “crack down” on migration, the more they actually encourage it and are doomed to fail.
“Having recycled the same old policies for over three decades, there is no way back”
“The UK is a good example,” he says – of what not to do. One of the promises of Brexit – with considerable voter appeal – was to cut migration. But in reality “the UK has record high immigration, partly because of Brexit”. Yet even a failed policy has benefits for our failed politicians because it acts as the politics of distraction: “By distracting attention through the asylum and boats issue, which are numerically quite small migrations compared with the recent hike in legal inflow, [politicians] distract attention away from clear policy failure.”
So, I ask, what exactly has failed? UK Border Force is extremely active. Post-Brexit the British parliament ended frictionless mobility from the EU. De Haas agrees, that’s all true. Those measures cut migration by EU citizens yet at the same time stimulated demand for labour from other places.
“Brexit ended free mobility from the EU, for sure,” de Haas tells me. “But it didn’t stop labour demand.” And labour demand is the key motivator. Supply of migrants follows demand for workers.
“There are several reasons why the UK had high immigration last year ,” he says. “Partly, the Ukraine war, although not that many Ukrainians got to Britain. It was also the Hong Kong dynamic.” (He means we allowed citizens from what was a former British colony to escape Beijing’s crackdown on their liberties.) “It was also due to the fact that when you close a border, people stay put [in the country to which they have migrated]. It’s what I call the ‘Now or Never Phenomenon.’”
The logic of that is simple. A government says it will stop migration. That means migrants who are already working temporarily in that country, perhaps as seasonal workers, suddenly understand that if they go back to their native country the closed border means they will never be able to come back to the land where they have found new opportunities. The United States is a good example. The US started to build a wall (or parts of it) along the Mexican border since the 1990s. Mexican guest workers used to come and go mostly to wealthy border states, Texas and California. Suddenly the wall and other measures meant the newcomers realised that if they returned to their native land through Tijuana they might never get back into the US except through an arduous and illegal journey in the hands of people smugglers. What would you do?
As de Haas puts it: “In the US, massive investments of taxpayer money in border enforcement since the late 1980s by both Republican and Democratic administrations turned a largely circular flow of Mexican workers going back and forth to California and Texas into an 11 million-strong population of permanently settled families all across the United States.”
Western Europe did it too, especially in respect of Turkish and North African guest workers. These guest workers often turned to permanent settlement, because they were discouraged from leaving the EU by barriers to new migrants. In Britain’s case, de Haas says, “instead of incentivising East European workers to return to origin countries, Brexit only seems to have strengthened the determination of Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian workers to stay permanently and bring over their families – with immigration to the UK paradoxically reaching an all-time high in the post-Brexit years.”
Politicians failed to curb legal immigration or to stop the boats, and they even “made things worse” with policies that are counterproductive because they are “not based on a scientific understanding of how migration works. Such policies are bound to fail because they are among the very causes of the problems they pretend to solve.” It’s not even a new phenomenon, de Haas says: “It happened in the past, with migrant workers coming [to the UK] from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries.” When the UK stopped free mobility of Commonwealth citizens from those regions in the 1960s the logical result was suddenly “a rush across the border. And for those who are already in, to stay and then get their families over.”
So, I wonder, what’s the solution? Should we open the gates to all-comers? No, de Haas says. The solution is to return to the core idea that migrants want a better life and that intersects perfectly with the desire of businesses in the target countries to demand labour to power economic growth: “The answer is not automatically open borders, but it means we have to really think critically about whether border closures can backfire. When you hear politicians talking about migration from non-European countries in particular, it’s always about war, poverty, conflict. All these things happen. But it dismisses entirely the main driver of immigration, which is labour demand.
“Everybody knows that those workers are needed, whether they’re legal or illegal and have no papers. We basically tolerate it. Workplace enforcement is minimal. And that is the elephant in the room. There’s this huge gap between what politicians say and do. They try to really, really crack down on asylum, and Britain is a great example of that, but at the same time there’s this whole overall dynamic of labour demand – and even a wall won’t help against that phenomenon.”
Humans follow the money. And the history of the past 50 or so years suggests de Haas is correct. During that period, he says, western democracies have pursued two policies that are utterly at odds.
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too. That’s a huge contradiction. So we created an economy that has generated a huge demand for migrant labour because we have given up labour controls [but] you cannot have both an open liberal market economy and want less immigration at the same time. It just doesn’t work.”
And to repeat, it certainly doesn’t work, because supply follows demand for workers and labour as well as for goods and services. But, I suggest, isn’t this really about which migrants we want or need and our resentment is directed at the “wrong” sort, however that is defined? Presumably most British citizens and politicians are content when doctors, scientists, businesspeople and high-wealth foreign investors come here? Isn’t the resentment confined to those with low skills who are said to take jobs from British workers or allegedly end up being a burden on the public purse?
De Haas agrees: “There’s this new narrative: we only need skilled workers. But then there’s this huge state of denial in terms of the real need for low-skilled. I remember Boris Johnson saying in 2019 that they have no jobs to come to, but that is patently not true. If you walk around in London or any major city, you can see it. There’s all these jobs in hospitality, cleaning and transport, filled up by lower skilled migrants and often migrants without papers. Everybody knows that. It’s a public secret.”
“You may want to create a society more like Japan. A more regulated labour market. People working into their 70s”
He adds that he is also “suspicious” of what he calls “the pro-immigration narrative” because it “often sounds very corporate. It is all about ‘We need skills and we need people’ and to a certain extent it is true that immigration is inevitable. However, such narratives ignore the fact that the already wealthy reap most economic benefits of immigration while lower-skilled native workers, including second-generation migrants, are most directly confronted with the social change and problems migration can also bring in their neighbourhoods.
“We need to be critical towards all those narratives and just don’t believe what politicians say, because what they say is often something completely different in terms of what’s actually happening.”
Again, I think we may all nod in agreement here. So, I wonder, does any country or group of politicians truly understand this? Who gets migration “right” or at least right for them? “You may want to create a society that looks more like Japan,” says de Haas, “a much more regulated labour market. People working well into their 70s. They’re a very different type of society, and a low-growth society probably also.”
But would politicians sacrifice the pursuit of economic growth to stop the boats? It would require, he says, “a more a regulated labour market where governments take back control on recruitment. So that’s up to the voter, but there’s this huge, huge gap between economic policy and migration realities.”
And that’s the key point. De Haas says it’s daft to be “for” or “against” migration because that would be like being “for” or “against” the economy. It’s just a fact of life. The question is how best to understand the phenomenon and manage it for the best. Rather than seeing migration as good or bad we should see it as “normal”. But it also seems normal to fear the Other, the people who look or speak differently, until – as has happened for centuries in Britain – the Other becomes Us and generations of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Huguenots, Jews, Chinese, South Asians, Eastern Europeans and all the rest eventually cease to be Them.
So here’s a modest proposal. How about if every future aspirant home secretary and all senior officials had to read de Haas’s book to consider how migration works in reality? Then that home secretary and those civil servants would undergo questioning by a Home Affairs Select Committee of MPs who also had to commit to read the book? They could disagree and argue about the content of course. But perhaps competence in government based on knowledge of the real world might become another successful British tradition. Like much of our historic immigration.
Gavin Esler’s latest book is “Britain is Better Than This”. He is also a patron of the Kent Refugee Action Network (KRAN)