Immigration: picking the low-hanging fruits


Opinion surveys consistently show that the British public is overwhelmingly hostile to immigration. This widespread hostility actively shapes our immigration policies in many ways. Although those policies are often demonstrably economically damaging, economic liberals tend to treat the topic as a lost cause. However, if we dig a little deeper into the polling data, a more differentiated picture emerges. Most people in Britain are not per se “anti immigration” or “pro-immigration”. Despite overall hostility to immigration, there are types of immigration that are widely accepted, or even popular with the public. This means that there are opportunities to liberalise our approach to immigration in some respects with popular support. It is not the case that clamping down on immigration is automatically popular, or that liberalising immigration is automatically unpopular. Contrary to the way the debate is usually framed, concerns about immigration are not really about overall numbers. Anxieties about immigration are primarily cultural, not economic. Overall numbers are therefore a sideshow.

The net migration target should be abolished. Net migration levels are irrelevant. Current and recent rates of population growth in Britain are not particularly high. Plenty of countries, cities and regions around the world have been able to cope successfully with population growth rates far in excess of what any British city or region has experienced. Insofar as immigration really has led to problems, this has been due to self-imposed domestic policy constraints, not immigration as such. The cap on the number of work visas for highly skilled people (Tier 2 visas) should also be abolished. Skilled migration is popular with the public, and Tier 2 migrants are, almost by definition, highly productive economic and fiscal net contributors. Limiting their numbers is not just needless economic self-harm: it is not even good politics. In addition, the Tier 2 system should be simplified in a number of ways. International students are another highly popular group of immigrants. The government should make it easier for foreign students to come here, to work alongside their studies, and to work here after their studies.

Debates about post-Brexit immigration policy options are predicated on the assumption that after Brexit, the UK must have one single immigration regime vis-à-vis the EU as a whole. This is not true. The UK could keep free movement with some countries, and end it for others. Free movement was never controversial in the UK before the 2004 EU enlargement. There is no reason why the UK should not be able to keep free movement for the old member states (the EU-14) and the EFTA countries. There is a two-thirds majority for free movement between Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK (“CANZUK”). This is a clear-cut example of where immigration policy can be liberalised with public support. Free movement between these countries should be introduced immediately, ideally on a reciprocal basis, or unilaterally if not. This could potentially be extended to other countries, if and when there is public support for it. Britain’s future migration system should be a two-lane system. There should be free movement for some countries, although unlike in the past, those would not all have to be European countries. They would simply be the countries which the British public is most comfortable to share an open border with. For the rest of the world, there should be a simplified, uncapped version of the current tier system

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