It must be emphasised, in the context of the present ‘Brexit’ discussions, that the ‘free movement of people’ is not a point of socialist principle. There have been times in British history when unrestricted immigration was allowed, but they have either been because there were no practical ways of limiting it; or, as in nineteenth century Britain, out of liberal principle. I’ve written before – in books and I think blogs – about the extraordinary lack of any practical ‘alien’ laws, as they were called, for most of the Victorian period; an absence which enabled anyone to enter Britain, for any reason, and made it virtually impossible to expel even the worst behaved of them, including terrorists. Passports weren’t required, and incomers were never stopped at Britain’s borders. (That’s not to say that they weren’t sometimes watched.) Not many people, especially present day Conservatives, know this; but it was so. It’s the reason why so many refugees, Jews fleeing from Russian pogroms, and economic migrants came to Britain between around 1830 and 1906, despite the fact that they were not particularly welcomed there. Indeed, it was a distinct matter of pride for most Britons that they could tolerate people they didn’t like and might even be virulently prejudiced against. There’s no particular virtue in befriending friends.
This was of course all part of the nineteenth century’s almost mystical belief in the ‘free market’, which included free movement of labour as well as of everything else. It allowed resources of all kinds, material and human, to be distributed to where they were most needed – and so could be exploited most profitably – quite ‘naturally’. (Free market capitalism was regarded as a ‘law of nature’ then.) According to this philosophy, there was little essential difference between ‘goods’ and ‘people’. In Thatcher’s time this came to be reflected in the renaming of people travelling by train as ‘customers’, rather than ‘passengers’, so highlighting their place in the commercial process; and, in my own professional field, turning ‘Personnel’ into ‘Human Resources’ departments in universities. In the same way, immigrants are now ‘human resources’ – or not.
This seems to lie at the root of the present government’s new draft policy on European immigration, leaked today. As good ‘New’ or economic liberals they welcome foreigners insofar as they contribute to the nation’s economy, mainly by driving down wages but for other reasons too; and don’t appear to be anti-immigration for openly racist or xenophobic reasons, which is what separates them from UKIP and their own Right wing. As I understand it – I haven’t scrutinised the details – the new policy is supposed to take these ‘market’ arguments for immigration on board.
Some Labour MPs might object to it because it’s Tory, and seems ‘illiberal’ in their own, broader understanding of theat word. I’m not sure what official Labour’s position will be, with so many of its natural constituents complaining – possibly unreasonably – of immigrants pricing them out of jobs, houses and health care. If they pander to them, it may lead to their being portrayed as ‘unprincipled’. But it won’t be Labour principles it will be flouting.
Socialism has other ways of dealing with the ‘problem’. State ‘controlled’ immigration might be one, which is what we’re seeing in this Conservative document. Another would be to strengthen minimum wage legislation, to prevent immigrants undercutting other workers, and in particular stopping companies deliberately recruiting abroad in order to lower wages. Corbyn floated both of these ideas during the recent election. Then, if ‘quotas’ were necessary, it could be presented as a way of undermining the power of market capitalism. It shouldn’t be an embarrassment to a socialist. So long, that is, as the policy is operated reasonably and flexibly. Expelling people who have lived in Britain for years – been born there, in some recent cases – just shows how inhumane May’s government is.
That’s ‘economic’ immigrants. Refugees – when you can distinguish them – are a special case. There are totally different, humanitarian arguments for admitting these. But it requires international co-operation. When refugees started ‘flooding in’ from Syria and elsewhere a few years ago, I hoped the EU might ease the burden for more generous countries like Germany and Sweden, by getting every member state to take a fair share. But that’s the EU of my dreams, not the reality.