Territory and Justice: a research network

November 19, 2011

British government pulls down the shutters

Filed under: Uncategorized — Chris Bertram @ 6:23 pm

Cross-posted from Crooked Timber

Today brings a well-argued critique of the British government’s latest moves on immigration policy by the Matt Cavanagh of the Institute for Public Policy Research (see also video; New Statesman column) . The UK now proposes (subject to a consultation) to make almost all immigration into the UK by non-EU workers temporary, with an upper limit of five years. There are a few exceptions for footballers, Russian oligarchs and others able and willing to deposit millions of pounds in a UK bank account, but even highly-skilled professionals will be kicked out when their time is up. Though hardly the most vulnerable group globally, I imagine this directly affects a substantial number of regular Crooked Timber readers: postgraduates and early-career academics from places like the US and Australia who apply in droves when we advertise permanent academic positions. In the Cameron-Clegg future, there will be no more Jerry Cohens, Ronald Dworkins, Amartya Sens or Susan Hurleys.

What’s driving this is the coalition’s aim of cutting net migration from about 200,000/year to “tens of thousands”. Since they can’t control inward migration by EU nationals, especially from Eastern Europe, and since outward emigration by the British is falling (though that could change) the squeeze is on. Just about the only variable they can do something about is non-EU, they’ve already made things nearly impossible for low and unskilled workers, so now the upper end are facing these restrictions. As Cavanagh argues, despite the coalition’s rhetoric about people with valuable skills, it is doubtful that such people will choose to take jobs in a country which fails to offer them a viable route to settlement and eventual citizenship. Fortunately, as Cavanagh points out, it is unlikely, on the basis of the experience of similar schemes in other countries (such as the German Gastarbeiter programme) than this policy will achieve its stated aims if implemented. It will however lead to a good deal of human misery as well as depriving the UK economy of many people with scarce skills. Ineffective and perverse then: i.e. bad public policy.

A final, more critical, point on Cavanagh’s otherwise excellent report. A policy-oriented think-tank like IPPR is under different constraints from political philosophers like me. I understand that, and what is politically realistic many not chime with what ideal justice requires. But I’d have liked to have seen a little more in the report about what a just global migration regime would look like. As it is, Cavanagh acknowledges the legitimacy of democratic anti-immigration sentiments and objectives and stresses – to counteract them – the economic benefits of admitting highly skilled workers. On the other side, he pushes back against “progressives” who “reflexively” oppose the tightening of controls. But even aside from whether such voices are correct, it seems to me that the moral defence of the rights and interests of would-be migrants can help frame the debate too (and give the Lib Dems, at least, pause) and that it may be a mistake tacitly to concede that the boundaries of acceptable policy discourse are to be set by economic growth and populist anxiety.

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