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1 February 2024

Citizens’ assemblies can solve Britain’s migrant crisis

Public opinion is more nuanced on migration than debate in Westminster allows.

By Daniel Susskind

This is a bleak economic moment for Britain. Living costs and poverty are rising. The workforce is sick and withering. Public services are either backlogged or broken. For some time, the lopsided economy has been dragged along by a spluttering London – it has been suggested that Britain, without the capital, would be poorer than the poorest US state (Mississippi). Average real wages, the best measure of our collective prosperity, have been stagnant for 15 years.

In response, two strategies have emerged. One is to ignore the constraints of the current economy, start with a blank sheet of paper, and ask what we would want it to look like in the future. But at a time when debt levels cast a shadow over the state’s ability to do much of fiscal substance, re-designing the economy from scratch is simply wish-based policymaking.

The other response is to start with Britain’s existing strengths – and ask what we can do to bolster them. This path, rooted in the realities of the actual economy, is more sensible.

With that second strategy in mind, the task is to identify what Britain’s economic strengths might be. For some, the answer is specific sectors: services, tech and pharma. For others, it is certain places: London, Oxford and Cambridge, Manchester and Birmingham. Importantly, though, few politicians or policymakers pick out what may be the country’s greatest economic strength – that people around the world really want to live and work here. Indeed, as current numbers show, now more than ever.

And is striking how the benefits to immigration are so often particularly beneficial for Britain. Immigrants do work that locals do not want to do – and UK job vacancies hit a record high in 2021. Immigrants power public services, like health and social care – and the UK public sector faces a recruitment catastrophe. Immigrants drive innovation (more than half of Silicon Valley’s population speaks a language other than English at home) – exactly the sort of pent-up productive power that the UK’s sluggish tech and service sectors need. Most importantly, these benefits have little to no fiscal cost – at a time when the British state has very little to spend.

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Of course, this economic strength is ignored for a familiar reason: that, from a political point of view, immigration is also considered one of Britain’s great weaknesses. The consensus is that the British people believe levels are too high and must come down.

As a result, our current approach to immigration is far from ideal: at best it represents political deception, talking down immigration in public but permitting it in practice; at worst, it is economic self-sabotage, actively suppressing it in harmful ways.

It follows that, when thinking about the future of the British economy, finding a better way to reconcile this tension between the economics and politics of immigration is critical. And a useful starting point in this search is to note the irony of the “populist” position on immigration: “less migration, full stop” doesn’t appear to be that popular any longer.

Consider the headline numbers. Over the past five years, though immigration has risen, concerns about immigration appear to have plummeted – from 56 per cent of people viewing it as one of the most important issues facing Britain in September 2015, to just a measly 5 per cent in April 2020. Concerns have bounced in the months since, but they still sit well below that pre-Brexit peak.

There are nuances beneath these headline figures. Take asylum. Yes, a majority believe that asylum seekers arriving on small boats should be removed from Britain. But that masks other sentiments: with respect to the Rwanda scheme, for example, a clear majority favour a system that promotes “fairness” rather than “deterrence” (in a forced choice, more than double prefer the former to the latter; 65 per cent vs 27 per cent, according to one 2022 poll). Yes, more than a third of people believe that the arrival of asylum seekers should be made more difficult. But again, in the cases of refugees from Ukraine and Hong Kong, that proportion is far lower (14 per cent and 21 per cent, respectively).

Or consider views on immigration for work. Yes, a third (36 per cent) think low-skilled migration ought to be made more difficult. But views on specific sectors that are stymied by shortages – care, agriculture and construction – are far more permissive (55 per cent think immigration to jobs with shortages should be made easier). In turn, less than one in ten think high-skilled migration into Britain ought to be harder (8 per cent).

Of course, there are other polls on attitudes and different ways to frame the responses. But taken together, what emerges is a subtler picture than the one captured in the current political conversation. After decades of race-to-the-bottom politics, leaders have found themselves forced into a rhetorical dead-end, taking immigration to be a monolithic, indivisible, lump of “bad” stuff that must necessarily be reduced, and the only open question is how to do it.

This is a mistake – not only a misreading of British public opinion, but a big missed economic opportunity as well. What then is to be done?

To start with, we ought to refresh the immigration debate. This means spending less time talking about the level of immigration and more time talking about its composition. As before, this appears to be a conversation that the British public is willing to have. What’s more, in a post-Brexit world, political leaders now have the control required to do it – if they choose. (That, since Brexit, levels of immigration have risen but concern about the issue has fallen, suggests that those concerns were more control, not levels, after all.)

In turn, we ought to recognise the need for a multi-tempered immigration policy. We might call it a “hammer and dance” approach, to borrow a phrase from pandemic policymaking: hammering down on certain types of immigration (such as illegal asylum, student dependents, low-skilled workers in loose labour markets) but dancing with other types, doing what we can to boost them (like legal asylum, students, high-skilled workers in tight labour markets).

But policymakers should go further. In 2007, the British government established the Migration Advisory Committee, a panel of technical experts tasked with providing evidence-based analysis about migration to inform political decision-making. It has done an impressive job marshalling the facts. But the group is limited because migration is not simply a technical question that can be delegated to economists to find the “right” answer, but a moral one: about who gets to call themselves part of our political community.

Around the world, a surge in “mini-publics” is under way, where citizens are gathered – in assemblies, juries, panels, dialogues, summits – to debate hard issues and present their conclusions to politicians: euthanasia in France, abortion in Ireland, nuclear policy in Korea. In Britain, it seems to me, the issue of immigration is ripe for this sort of participative interrogation. And a panel of citizens – call it a “migration advisory citizenry” – sitting alongside existing technical experts, providing politicians with their views too, would do that.

Brits might be more supportive of immigration from Ukraine and Hong Kong. But were they ever consulted about their views, or was this decision dictated from the top down? Brits might be happy with immigrants doing work that locals do not want to do. But were they ever asked which sectors they wanted to include on occupation lists, or was it decided on their behalf?

By providing a new, formal setting for debate about migration, we might allow for more of the nuance in public opinion to surface, and for a more enlightened approach to emerge. For our current one, where we simply try to crush immigration levels, whatever the economic harm, is a disaster.

Daniel Susskind is an economist at Oxford University and King’s College London, and the author of several books, including “Growth: A Reckoning” (Allen Lane, forthcoming in 2024). 

[See also: The conservative paradox]

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