Tom Bennett is a councillor in Kensington and Chelsea, and works as a management consultant.
Every year in the UK we send home thousands of Australians who would really rather we didn’t, because they’ve reached the end of their two-year ‘Youth Mobility Scheme’ visa. As they fly back to Sydney and Melbourne, they pass thousands of British youngsters being sent in the other direction for the same reason. In both cases, the state is intervening in these people’s lives and forcing them to leave their jobs and their homes in the country they had chosen to move to. But to what end? It is hard to believe there is any national benefit in implementing this forced repatriation year on year. Yet this arbitrary and indeed extreme exertion of governmental authority is seen as necessary as part of a policy to limit net immigration.
And that’s the problem: the Government sees the limitation of net immigration as synonymous with the limitation of absolute immigration, based on the logic that we can only control the number of people entering, not the number leaving. However, this completely ignores the principle of reciprocity that underpins all other forms of foreign policy. The result is that we have an immigration policy that clumsily limits a significant amount of free movement that could exist without increasing net immigration.
A comparison with trade policy demonstrates the absurdity of the current approach. Imagine that trade policy concerned itself primarily with ‘net trade’, and focused on reducing our trade deficit by reducing imports. Exports and imports of £300 billion each would be considered equally desirable as no trade at all. This is the belief of mercantilists, and was debunked by Adam Smith over 200 years ago. But the exact same principle applies to movement of people: greater freedom allows people to relocate to where their skills are most needed, and where they most desire to be. Limitation of this freedom should only be done with good reason. Limiting net inbound migration is, at some level, a good reason; due to the pressures an increase in population puts on housing and social services. Limiting mutual migration, with no impact on net immigration, is not.
Whilst the debate rages on about the right level of net immigration, we should set to work on designing a policy that can liberalise both immigration and emigration, independently of the level set for net immigration. As ever, the practice will be more difficult than the theory, but we can start by pursuing immigration deals (ideally accompanied by freer trade deals) in which the level of migration in each direction would be fairly balanced, both in terms of initial movement and long-term settlement. This is most likely to happen in countries with similar average wages.
Leaving the EU to one side for a moment, as we are still currently part of it, a good place to start would be the countries involved in the aforementioned youth mobility scheme. This scheme allows those under 31 to travel abroad for two years, and includes countries such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. Though there is a cap on the number of visas that can be issued under the scheme, in most cases the cap is never reached, suggesting that significant levels of unbalanced migration in either direction would be unlikely. Bilateral deals with these nations would probably be the easiest first step, but we also shouldn’t rule out the possibility of agreeing on multilateral deals.
This ambitious proposition is something already advocated for by the non-profit organisation CANZUK, which wants to see freedom of movement (and trade) among Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. CANZUK believes that the people in each of these countries are predominantly in favour of this increase in their freedom, and it is the governments (being, as is often the case, less liberal than their people) that are preventing it from happening. This is easy to believe, given that even most ‘leavers’ see the potential end of free movement with countries like France, Netherlands, Germany and Sweden (and even less wealthy countries like Italy, Spain and Greece) as an unfortunate side-effect of leaving the EU.
At a time when the British Government talks of little else but Brexit, and seems devoid of original ideas, refocusing our immigration policy in this way would be a radical, while also fundamentally Conservative, step. Not only would it allow for more efficient allocation of resources, it would also significantly increase personal freedom, and reduce the imposition of the state upon the individual. Indeed, the current state of affairs, which sees young people uprooted and sent half-way across the world, would be considered tyrannical were it not the for the fact that each government does it to another nation’s citizens, rather than its own. But the result is of course the same, and both governments must accept responsibility.
It is time the UK showed leadership in addressing this injustice. Wherever free movement of people can be achieved alongside balanced levels of bidirectional migration, it should be sought. To oppose it would be illiberal, and unbecoming of any Conservative politician who believes individual freedom to be important.