screen-shot-2016-11-16-at-07-51-09Alex Morton was a member of David Cameron’s Downing Street Policy Unit.

Donald Trump’s election was the most obvious symptom of a rising discontent with globalisation and, as part of it, the critical issue of immigration. Earlier this week, Theresa May argued that we must understand and respond to this discontent without abandoning our core principles.

Liberal conservatives have long struggled to shape an immigration policy that works. But to defeat populists on the right, we must show that immigration, like globalisation, benefits this country and its people, rather than start from the nonsensical premise that nations are irrelevant. As May said, you are a citizen of a country first, not just a citizen of the world. Our obligation to those outside the UK is not the same as the obligation to those within the UK. For example, almost no one, even on the Left, genuinely thinks we as ‘global citizens’ should spend the same on healthcare for a sick British pensioner as a pensioner abroad.

It is not particularly liberal to say countries don’t matter. Nationhood might be an accident of birth, but so is higher IQ or inherited wealth. It is not the job of government to dismantle such a misfortune. Being born in a poor country is a misfortune, it is not an injustice. Nationhood is analogous to a collective right to participate in institutions – like a family. Anyone should be free to leave a nation – like a family – but that does not mean any other specific nation must take you in, any more than any family must take in a disowned stranger. Immigration must clearly benefit Britain, not just the migrant coming to the UK.

Create a Cultural Compatibility Test and Economic Permit System

In general, people want less immigration for three broad reasons. The first is that it places a strain on public services and housing. The second is that is places a strain on cultural integration where the migrants hold different values to ours. The third is that it lowers wages. I would argue the cultural issue is the most valid reason, with some truth about low skill worker wages being depressed if immigration is allowed at very high levels.
There is nothing liberal about limiting migration due to infrastructure or housing concerns. We should not bar intelligent, English-speaking, culturally compatible skilled workers from coming to the UK than we should ban people from moving within the UK. We need a flexible system of housing and public service provision for both internal and external migration. We need to ensure cultural differences and low skill migration are handled sensibly.

The public, deep down, seem to agree. Certainly they have widely different views on migration depending on the country of origin. 58 per cent of people support absolutely free movement of people between Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Boris Johnson, our foreign Secretary, has also supported this view in the past.  The map of the world above, based on YouGov polling, shows that people in general are much more sympathetic to some countries than others. People are very focused on the cultural issue in immigration. Race seems much less important (i.e: Japan beats Argentina, and India is well above Pakistan).

However, we cannot just assign numbers based on polling that will fluctuate and is subjective. To capture this cultural context, which immigration policy must do in order to retain public support, a four-part test could be created.  This four-part test would focus on:

  • Basic Freedoms and Women’s rights. Religious freedom, legality of homosexuality, and women’s rights.
  • Functioning Democracy. States with a history of a functioning democracy and free speech.
  • Income levels. The levels of income in a country.
  • English speaking. If a country has near universal English usage as a primary language.

Countries that achieve all four could have open borders. For each other country, we would score them and allocate similar -coring countries a limited number of permits based on an auction – with the permit system based on that proposed by Nobel winning economist Gary Becker. Within this, we would offer higher scoring countries a greater number of permits. We could use the money raised by auction permits to support infrastructure – and it could be substantial – if the average permit is valued at £20,000, then each 100,000 permits would raise £2 billion.

The net effect of this would be that we would probably have the same levels of immigration as now, but we would have more high-skilled, English-speaking workers who integrate and pay more tax than they ever receive in state benefits, while low skill workers would be from culturally similar English speaking countries (which also receive migrants back from the UK).

This would still let in a high skill Chinese or Indian student into Cambridge university or a French or American accountant into London for the City, benefitting our economy.  Those high skill workers who will pay the visa will either be incredibly wealthy or speak English and be working/studying, so integration will not be an issue.
Instead of an increasingly strained set of systems based around asylum, student visa, family reunion and so on, we would have a policy that as liberals we can defend as simple, recognising cultural concerns, and benefitting our economy.

Our humanitarian obligations cannot be fulfilled by our immigration policy

It is sometimes argued we have an obligation to accept those suffering in other countries as part of a moral immigration system. But immigration is not about humanitarian obligations. There are roughly 60 million displaced people globally. On top of that, hundreds of millions, if not billions of people, have a legitimate claim to asylum. Women, gay/bisexual people, ethnic and religious minorities across most of Africa and the Arab world would be legitimate.

We should have an aid budget and use it to help refugees, to support human rights groups working with religious and sexual minorities, to support women (e.g. as I have argued before on access to contraception). But we need to be vigorous in making the common sense case that mass immigration is not, and cannot, be part of our humanitarian obligations.

To defeat populists, liberal Conservatives must continue to put this country first, without ignoring our wider obligations. Fortunately, globalisation is not a zero sum game, and we can do both. May has promised action – and we need systems that reflect people’s concerns – before they start to have an impact at the balance box.