For truth on immigration, look to the Bard not politicians

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Policy drives evidence in modern political debate. Nowhere is this more true than in discussion of the economics of immigration to Britain.

In 2007 the home secretary lauded “the purity of the macroeconomic case for migration”, and the immigration minister claimed: “There are obviously enormous benefits of immigration.” He even quantified the benefit at £6bn a year (though this is hardly “enormous” relative to gross domestic product of £1.5tn). Official predictions grossly underestimated the numbers who would come when the border was opened to Poles in 2004.

By 2012, however, the home secretary was claiming that, without immigration, house prices would be lower and wages higher, and that every 100 immigrants put 23 British workers out of a job. Official predictions appear to have grossly overestimated the numbers who would come in 2014 when the borders were opened to Bulgarians and Romanians.

What had changed between 2004 and 2014 was not that new facts about immigration had emerged. Nor had new analysis led to a reversal of earlier conclusions. What had changed was the make-up of the government, the identity of the home secretary and the salience of immigration as a political issue.

The composition, mode of selection and even the existence of the House of Lords are hard to defend. But its economic affairs committee, which treads fearlessly in controversial areas, is a bright spot in our political darkness. Its 2008 report on the economics of immigration provides a balanced and careful assessment. Its conclusion is that at aggregate level neither the net costs nor net benefits of moderate levels of immigration are very large. There are significant economic issues raised in the immigration debate, but they are of a much more granular kind.

It is unlikely that even the most philistine and xenophobic member of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence party thinks Britain should have prevented the immigration of Ernest Rutherford from New Zealand or TS Eliot from the US. Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek chose to write their principal works in Britain, recognising a freedom of thought that has contributed to both intellectual and commercial success. Immigration has made London the most cosmopolitan city in the world – possibly ever.

The economics and sociology of immigration are inextricable. How else can you explain the fact that in Britain more than 80 per cent of people born in eastern Europe, and fewer than 20 per cent of women born in Bangladesh, are in employment?

Immigrants are, by virtue of the self-selection that leads some to leave while others stay at home, more than averagely enterprising: the immigrant who takes our jobs is a more real threat than the one who scrounges our benefits. Perhaps this explains why Americans are even now more individualistic and more innovative than the societies many of their ancestors left. It explains the phenomenon of the economically successful immigrant minority: the Huguenots in Britain; the Chinese in Malaysia; Jews in many countries; and Indians who prospered in Africa and then the UK. It also explains the resentment among the indigenous majority.

The affirmation of group identity is a powerful human emotion. Politicians, like gang bosses and football fans, routinely attempt to establish or reinforce their leadership by inciting hostility to other groups. This is an especially attractive strategy when the group feels under economic pressure.

The most powerful antidote is not a sermon on the values of tolerance or multiculturalism. It is friendship and, above all, love between individuals in potentially hostile groups. Many religious, cultural and linguistic practices inhibit the formation of such relationships. Often, that is why group leaders – segregationists, mad mullahs or self-appointed representatives of minority communities – emphasise these mechanisms of separation.

Romeo and Juliet might have brought Montagues and Capulets together through a happy marriage. Instead, they did so through tragedy. It is obvious which is the better route. America is the most successful of immigrant societies because its immigrants aspired to be Americans: and its greatest social problem stems from its attempt to deny that opportunity to one racial group.

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