Comment: Anti-immigrant policies are damaging Britain on the world stage

By Peter Harris

Who are the most avid supporters of immigration in Britain today?  One might point to free-marketeering business leaders, left-leaning liberals or perhaps immigrants themselves.

Jingoistic, patriotic Britons would probably not be high up on the list.  Flag-waving Middle Englanders are more closely associated with Ukip or the Conservative right than they are any pro-immigration lobby.  Yet it is precisely people bent on bolstering British national strength in the twenty-first century who should be the most in favour of open immigration. 

Regrettably, though, while immigration has been discussed ad nauseum in recent years, the critical point that immigration is actually essential to propping up Britain's international standing has gone completely unaddressed.

This unhappy state of affairs is in stark contrast to the debate over Britain's nuclear weapons capability.  Indeed, there is nothing quite like Britain's nuclear deterrent to inspire a vigorous debate about the country's foreign policy and future role in the world.

While a final decision on whether to renew Trident has been put off until 2016, the issue promises to resurface periodically between then and now—not least of all in next year's general election campaign and this year's referendum on Scottish independence.

To its supporters, Britain's nuclear weapons capability is an invaluable geostrategic asset—a veritable must-have in the modern world.  Membership of the nuclear weapons club affords Britain a measure of diplomatic clout on the world stage that the country simply must not forsake.

If it fails to replace Trident in the coming years, Britain would become the odd one out among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.  Unilateral nuclear disarmament would leave France as the sole nuclear weapons state in Europe, inflating Paris's role in the north Atlantic alliance and hastening the demise of the Anglo-American special relationship.  Whatever the financial cost, then, nuclear weapons are worth having because they augment Britain's standing.  Without them, the country would be weaker.

On its face, the argument that Trident should be kept in order to buttress Britain's international security and standing is a compelling one.  Yet if public policies are to be measured by the extent to which they cement Britain's place at the top table of international diplomacy, then nuclear weapons policy should not be singled out for scrutiny.  The country's immigration policies deserve equal if not greater attention.

For while it might be true that most of today's great powers boast an arsenal of nuclear weapons, military hardware is far from the only measure of national strength and influence.  A country's demographics also contain important indicators of great power status—and on this front, Britain risks doing unnecessary and perhaps irreparable injury to its long-term national power, influence and prestige.

Scholars of international relations generally agree on the importance of population when it comes to assessing a nation's overall strength.  Size matters.  Although the correlation is not perfect, bigger countries tend to be more powerful and smaller countries less so.  It is no accident that in international bodies like the European Union, votes are apportioned according to population size.

Moreover, when industrialised countries undergo population decline—as Russia did from the 1990s onwards, for example—their economies and societies suffer as a result.  Fewer workers lead to lower overall tax receipts.  The national debt becomes harder to pay off.  Industrial output suffers.  Ensuing fiscal crises can lead to social rot and political instability.

Ageing populations also cause social, economic and political headaches for public officials.  Caring for old people costs money, which can be hard to come by when there is a shortage of people at working age.  Japan is the country most commonly associated with an ageing population, but many European countries face similar crises now and in the not-so-distant future.

In China, longer life expectancies and decades of the self-defeating one-child policy mean that leaders in Beijing will be forced to grapple with a potential demographic disaster later this century—something that promises to slow, even if not completely halt, that country's ascent to global material preponderance.

It is well known that countries open to immigration can avoid the problems of a declining or an ageing population.  In this sense, immigration policy can be considered a tool of statecraft, a way of maintaining and expanding national strength and influence.

Historically, no country has understood this better than the United States—a nation that for generations welcomed wave after wave of economic migrants into its ranks.  In no short measure, these newcomers—predominantly young and willing to work—helped to propel the United States from geopolitical pygmy in the late 1700s to great power status by at least 1898.

Smaller countries also can benefit from large-scale immigration.  While there are unique historical reasons to explain Jewish migration to Israel, the influx of 3 million Jews to Israel since 1948 has served to buttress Israeli security and prosperity.  Because most Israeli adults undergo military service, any increase (or decrease) in population has a direct effect upon Israel's military readiness—no small thing given Israel's famously hostile environment.  Migrants to Israel have been a rich source of skills, capital and—in more recent years—cheap labour.

Closer to home, the Scottish government has for several years pursued an ambitious immigration initiative—'Talent Scotland'—aimed at attracting high-skilled workers to Scotland's shores.  Scotland has long suffered from the effects of so-called 'brain drain', with too many of its skilled young people finding economic opportunity south of the border.  Liberal immigration policies are a way to redress this problem and comprise a key plank of the Scottish National party's social and economic plan for an independent Scotland.

Indeed, the United Kingdom as a whole boasts a proud history of welcoming migrants.  From the French Huguenots of the seventeenth century to the African-Caribbean and Asian migrants of the twentieth, to the Poles and New Yorkers of today, Britain is a country whose economy and society have benefitted enormously from immigration.  As republican wags enjoy pointing out, even the royal family is of continental stock.

Nevertheless – and as Scotland's frustration with Westminster reveals – this longstanding British tradition is in serious jeopardy.  The problem, of course, is that immigration is not a straightforward elixir for curing demographic ills.

Immigrants need jobs and healthcare, their children education.  There exist today far too few services to teach English to newcomers.  Moreover, the economic benefits that do stem from immigration are unevenly distributed across society.  While employers might rejoice at cheap labour, some workers are right to worry about their wages and livelihoods.  It is the right and proper job of public officials to listen to these concerns and respond accordingly.

Instead of developing policies aimed at making immigration work for the country as a whole, however, the response of the Westminster political class over recent years has been to debate caps on immigration and give credence to the philosophical position that immigrants are a drain on society instead of net contributors.

The proposed answer to a lack of services for newcomers has been to curtail the number of people entering the country instead of expanding the provision of those services.  Such an approach amounts to nothing more than throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

It has been forgotten that an effective immigration policy does not end when a migrant sets foot on British soil.  Rather than undertaking to reinvest the economic gains of immigration to cover the costs of integrating immigrants into society—plugging shortfalls in NHS funding, for example, or keeping classroom sizes small in areas where immigrants choose to settle—the government has been accused of burying evidence that immigration is a wealth-creator.

When this approach to immigration is viewed in a comparative context alongside the debate over renewing Trident, there is an obvious double standard at work.

Politicians openly advocate spending billions of pounds on a successor to Trident in the name of shoring up Britain's future power and influence but there are few willing to recommend increased expenditure on attracting and integrating migrants for the same purpose.  Yet both possession of nuclear weapons and the maintenance of demographic vitality are pathways to the same outcome: a stronger Britain.

Indeed, immigration even can be regarded as the superior means of bolstering British power in an increasingly competitive global environment.  While the economic and social—not to mention military—gains of properly managed immigration are well studied and quantifiable, the geopolitical value of Trident is unclear and largely unmeasurable.

The point is not necessarily that Britain should swap nuclear weapons for newcomers—there is no inherent trade-off between the two.  Nor should the realpolitik case for immigration overshadow the moral and humanitarian reasons to welcome migrants to Britain, particularly those facing persecution in their land of origin.  But the question remains: why is the case for immigration not being made more forcefully by those who profess a desire to safeguard British power?

It has been a long time since Britannia ruled the waves.  No amount of nuclear weaponry will be enough to alter that fact, and nor would most Britons wish it otherwise.  But neither the country nor its leadership should resign itself to an inevitable freefall from the international-political premier league.

Properly managed and sufficiently funded, immigration can play a critical role in buoying Britain's national strength and global influence today and well into the future.  Much maligned in the present political climate, newcomers could yet turn out to be Britain's secret weapon in the 21st century.

Peter Harris is a doctoral candidate in Government at the University of Texas in Austin, where he is also a graduate fellow of the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft.

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