I’ve oscillated a lot over the past three months. I began tentatively voting Remain, before moving towards Leave after the Spectator debate, in which the Remain panel (Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, and Nick Clegg) performed very poorly. Inclinations to vote Leave were briefly strengthened by reading Daniel Hannan’s Why Vote Leave?, which at first read seemed to present a compelling case for Brexit.
In the end, having been lucky enough that people have pointed me to points at which Hannan misrepresents figures and consequent arguments, having considered some of his arguments (‘EU bureaucrats get too much free stuff!’, an unconvincing argument when one recalls the extent to which our own MPs manipulated their expenses) to be compelling rhetoric but lacking in substance, and having watched Nigel Farage of the UKIPS girn, gormlessly as ever, in front of a poster that bears unnerving similarities to Nazi propaganda, I’ve finally come down firmly, though reluctantly, in the Remain camp.
1. The EU isn’t ‘undemocratic’. No legislation can pass without European Parliament approval – a democratically-elected body. New legislation also needs to be approved by the European Council, which is is constituted by the Heads of State of each of the 28 member states – Heads of State which are, however indirectly, democratically elected. The European Parliament is able to co-legislate with the Council in the “vast majority of areas”. Moreover, the President of the European Commission is selected by the European Parliament, and will only be accepted if there is a majority in favour.
It seems to me that is not fundamentally different from the UK’s democratic process, insofar as we do not vote directly for our Prime Minister or our Cabinet; in fact, it is possible to argue that both procedures also fail to live up to democratic ideals, insofar as whilst an individual MP is voted for, no say is allowed as to whether said MP is given one of the most powerful positions in the country (and often both the Cabinet and the Shadow Cabinet are tainted by nepotism).
The question of EU democracy, therefore, should not be assessed through a binary lens – ‘democratic’ or ‘non-democratic’. As with our own Parliament, the EU’s structures fall somewhere in between the two. To berate the EU for failing to adhere to a democratic absolute is no argument for leaving when the UK’s parliamentary structures – in the form of the House of Lords – are equally, in absolute terms, undemocratic. In fact, this isn’t even true for the House of Lords – in reality, one technically votes for the MP they would prefer to run their constituency. While, of course, party affinities and desires for the country as a whole naturally come into effect here, so that one is often in essence voting for a Prime Minister and ruling party, even this democratic statement is a diluted, mediated one, due to the nature of the voting process.
In fact, others will disagree, but I argue that a Parliament made up of 28 member states is less likely to become tyrannical than a single-nation parliament with a majority: political homogeneity across such a large number of states is unlikely, and the need to acknowledge the agenda of each member state means that fears of EU tyranny are woefully – in my opinion – misplaced. The mandate of the EU is the mandate of its 28 member states and their constituent populations; if the weight of each individual’s vote is diluted, this can also become a positive thing.
Finally, on this point, I’m sure that many will argue that this means that one might be forced to accept officials influencing EU decisions for whom they didn’t vote, voted for by people with whom they disagree.
In no way is this different from UK decisions being made by 649 other officials for whom one did not vote, often voted for by people with whom one disagrees.
This has actually been a trickier one for me than many people tend to acknowledge in their arguments. Yes, anti-immigration arguments are frequently racist in their effect, their intention, or both. Yes, the notion of immigrants coming over here and taking our benefits is a vacuous nonsense and should be greeted with all the derision provided by Stewart Lee in this video.
Immigration is necessary and important, with immigrants providing a net benefit to the economy in terms of taxation and fiscal contribution. The same source acknowledges that migrants tend to contribute to both technological progress and tend to be more skilled than the general population. Often, immigrants will be highly skilled, having acquired intermediate to native fluency in a second language on top of the range of other abilities they possess. 60% of UK immigrants possess a university degree, which means that the immigrant population as a whole is more likely to possess a university degree than the indigenous population. Immigrants diversify the labour market, filling skills shortages where they exist, and encouraging growth in sectors otherwise under-represented.
Population growth is necessary for economic growth unless the average productivity rate of each already-existing worker increases. To argue that migrants are ‘taking our jobs’ is, on the macro level, a fallacy: labour demands do not remain static and population growth creates extra demand, and, as a consequence, employment. The notion that Britain should be ‘for the British’ is historically a nonsense – why privilege those who happen to be in Britain in 2016 over those who were born in Britain in 1986 or 1956, or indeed 2046, aside from the fact that the 2016 contingent includes the individual proposing such an argument? – and ideologically unsavoury.
The notion that Britain’s public services can’t take the c. 330,000 migrants entering each year is demonstrably incorrect, as demonstrated by this study conducted by (inter alia) Oxford’s Blatvanik School of Government. As far as the NHS is concerned, increased immigration tended to correlate with reduced waiting times. The study, notably, finds that the highest increases in waiting times were found in areas with higher amounts of deprivation – where illness is likely to be higher and funding is likely to be lower. Neither problem can be attributed, it seems, to migrants.
Another seemingly incorrect argument is one that argues that Britain simply doesn’t have the space for migrants. 330,000 migrants constitute about 0.5% of Britain’s population, in a nation that currently sees about 7% of its land built-on.
If the NHS is understaffed and overworked, it is primarily due to a series of government austerity measures leading to NHS underfunding: austerity measures that form part of a wider ideological mission to reduce the size of the state in favour of private capital. For example, the first year after the coalition government came to office saw real terms reductions in mental health investment, while UK spending on healthcare per capita remains lower than that of the US, Australia, Germany, Canada, and France. If London and Greater London remain overcrowded, this is due to successive failures by UK governments to ensure that brownfield land is built on, that buy-to-rent is discouraged, and that London is not the UK’s only economic hub.
These are, undoubtedly, problems. The three-decades-long failure to ensure that economic development is distributed (reasonably) equitably across the country is lamentable. Yet these are problems neither caused nor meaningfully exacerbated by migration, and it will be a loss both culturally and economically if Britain were to close its doors.
Migration: The other side
And yet a good friend of mine recently articulated a problem that had been nagging at my mind for a long time. Yes, immigration, at the macro level, might indeed be a net good. Yet most people do not live their lives, at least directly, according to macroeconomic trends, remarked said friend. What is true for the economy as a whole may well not be true for certain sectors, nor might it be true for certain areas. “Lump of labour” may be a dubious macroeconomic belief to hold, but it is less so at the micro level. I have not been able to find a suitable objection to the following argument: in a single area, it seems entirely possible that demand may be slow to catch up to supply, and, for example, an influx of electricians into an area that has yet to see an increase in demand for electricians will necessarily result in competition for labour – and, of course, if indeed true that migrants are willing to work for lower wages, British workers seeking higher wages in these areas will necessarily be at a disadvantage.
However, nothing I have read suggests that this is more than a hypothetical, while research notes that migrants tend to be more willing to take jobs that do not fit their skill set than native workers. Most Vote Leave proponents speak of, or imply, the need for the rest of the world to compromise with Britain, to see their economic agendas subsumed to those of the British people – one might remark that the British population should be equally willing to compromise. In the article containing research by Amelia F. Constant of George Washington University, it is noted that even when there is competition in one sector, job vacancies exist in other sectors due to misalignment between skills required and skills possessed. Committed as most Leavers are to Britain pulling itself up by its bootstraps, one might argue that there is a need to do the same here.
I check myself saying this: it appears too harsh. Economic hardship is a reality, and it is naturally easier to be sanguine about employability if one has transferable skills and bilingual abilities. For those without transferable skills, employability is naturally reduced, and Again, I argue that the problem at heart is really a deeper structural one; inadequate funding for retraining certainly seems to be a problem, and our government would do well – especially given the rate at which jobs are becoming automated – to ensure that workers are given greater funding for retraining if they so wish.
In conclusion, I see no evidence that migration is anything other than a general, important good for the UK economy. It seems that criticisms of migration are mostly based on fallacies about the skill level of migrants (‘we should only let good people in!’), the work ethic of migrants (‘they’re taking our benefits’), or the nature of labour (‘they’re taking a static number of jobs’). All seem to me to be – based on robust research – to be false.