This piece by Simon Mair of the University of Surrey, linked below, was published in The Conversation at the end of March 2020, about 2 weeks after the first full stay at home restrictions started in the UK.
The image is one I have chosen which is by Edward Hicks (American, 1780–1849), entitled Peaceable Kingdom. (1834. Oil on canvas, 29.6 × 35.5 in. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.).
The painting is based on the biblical prophecy or vision, described in Isaiah Chapter 11, of a society in which people live in harmony with each other and creation, with an ethic of protection of life and avoiding harm.
The piece is even more useful now I believe as it is clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not a short-term phenomenon from which we will be able to get back to normal after a few months of disruption. It has exposed huge weaknesses and deficiencies in our previous social, political, and economic lives which must change. The impact on health, well-being and the economy mean new imaginations of the future social contract and economic system are called for. Coupled with the urgent issues of climate change and the need to address inequalities of respect and opportunities highlighted by Black Lives Matter in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, as well as growing awareness of the inadequacy of our social security provisions in the UK, there is a growing urgent need for change.
There is debate today following publication of a House of Lords report which apparently concludes that immigration has had little or no impact on the economic well-being of Britons. Whilst this fatally undermines Government arguments for immigration on the grounds that it’s good for the UK’s economy; it doesn’t seem to me to offer very much support to those who would want to argue against immigration on grounds that it is economically bad for Britain. It appears to me that the objective message of this report is that immigration is neither particularly positive nor particularly negative in economic terms. Not that this is how it is being interpreted of course. The Tory Opposition Home Secretary David Davis said, according to the BBC, that the report had shown “unequivocally that the benefits of the current immigration policy to ordinary UK citizens are largely non-existent”. But what he means I think is economic benefit; which is not the whole story.
The debate needs to go wider than that. Firstly, even on the economic front: what about the benefit to the migrants themselves? If there is no significant detriment or benefit economically to Britons, then surely the benefit to the migrants is huge and so the overall benefit has to be positive? And what about the benefit to the wider world economy upon which at the end of the day the future health of the UK economy is dependent? It’s been said that financial remittals from migrant workers to impoverished economies overseas far outweigh the amounts of foreign aid the government gives; and this is money going directly into the pockets of poorer families rather than politicians and officials.
But the economic pros and cons of immigration are not the only ones and this report, by showing that on balance these almost cancel each other out, then places the focus of debate on the other pros and cons of immigration; social; cultural; diplomatic. Inquiry chariman Lord Wakeham presented a possibly negative spin on this aspect, according to a BBC quote, when he said: “Looking to the future, if you have got that increase in numbers and you haven’t got any economic benefit from it, you have got to ask yourself, is that a wise thing to do? …That is why we want the government to look at it.”
But at least one “elephant in the room” here is surely poverty and inequality; both at the international level, but also within the British economy. An IFS report on Poverty and Inequality in Britain in 2007 concluded that the incomes of the rich have been rising faster than the incomes of the poor despite Government efforts to counteract poverty amongst the low-paid. It’s not clear to me whether migration is the cause of the recent failure to reverse the trend towards greater income inequality; the report implies it might play a part because it claims low-paid British workers are disadvantaged by the immigration of foreign workers, both in terms of job and also training opportunities. On the other hand, there is a danger that the other factors causing growth in income inequality (such as the evisceration of local government and the lack of a coherent regional strategy but mostly a lack of will in any of our current political parties for a sustained attack on inequality) will be ignored and the blame laid on migrants. Which leads us to the other “elephant in the room” of course which is racism. This is subliminal – see the photograph of migrant workers on the Daily Mail website today on this issue.