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25 January 2017

How Much is Too Much? – Reflections on Paul Collier’s Exodus

"Austria has also toned down its earlier Pharisaic attacks on Hungary (it could hardly do otherwise since it is now facing the same brickbats from human rights bodies that Hungary did), but the left liberal lobby in the EU continues to try and distract attention from its lamentable performance on this issue by viciously attacking Hungary for demonstrating that the EU emperor had no clothes."

Migrants, economic migrants, immigrants, emigrants, settlers, colonisers, asylum seekers, refugees even a sub-category of welfare tourists: the taxonomy of migration shows us that this age-old phenomenon is as complex as it is potentially explosive. Many of the above categories overlap: for example, all migrants are necessarily “economic” migrants in search of a better life than the one they have left, even if they may also be refugees and/or asylum seekers. Or take another example: after the Napoleonic Wars, the flood of migrants to the New World were initially referred to as “emigrants”. However the nomenclature underwent a change: as the economic historian James Belich has discovered, by 1830, exactly the same type of migrant was no longer described as an “emigrant” in the press of the day, but as a “settler”. As Paul Collier perceptively notes in this remarkable book, “this change was not innocuous; the two terms imply radically different narratives. Emigrants are, essentially, leaving their society of origin behind them to join a new one. Settlers, in contrast, are bringing their society of origin with them.”

This observation goes to the heart of the debate about what is arguably the most pressing political issue of our time. The debate has also become toxic, the blame for which Collier lays squarely at the feet of mainstream politicians, who have sought to evade open discussion of immigration, for fear of the topic being hijacked by extremists. Especially in Europe, the racism and fascism of the first half of the twentieth century casts a long shadow, preventing any detailed discussion that is not tinged with the resentment of those who feel they are being manipulated, or infected with the self-righteousness of those who feel their view of the matter is the morally superior one. Collier, a Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford, navigates between these extremes with deft prose, scrupulous use of data, and laudable candour. “While the topic [of immigration] is regularly around the top of voter concerns”, he notes, “the literature on it is either narrow and technical or heavily filtered by advocacy for some strongly held opinion”, and he hopes that “the evidence and arguments” he offers “will open popular discussion of migration policy beyond views that are theatrically polarised and stridently expressed. The issue is too important to stay that way.”

In five closely argued chapters Collier deals with the drive” factors of migration, its social and economic consequences, winners and losers from migration, and the effect on the countries from which migrants have come (or escaped), finally making some suggestions for framing a migration policy that is “fit for purpose”. Along the way he overturns a number of applecarts, exposes economic self- interest posing as altruism, and gives short shrift to disingenuous politicians or press commentators who either fail to understand, or do not wish to accept, the dynamics of immigration with its positive and negative effects. As the grandson of a German immigrant who was the target of vicious English racism in the First World War, Collier’s credentials are impeccable and he should gain a hearing where others offering similar views might be dismissed. So when he says that he has written “a critique of the prevailing opinion among liberal thinkers, a group of which I am a member, that modern Western societies should embrace a post- national future” we sit up and take notice. His own family is multi-national or indeed “post-national” (he has a Dutch wife brought up in Italy, his son has an American passport, his nephews are Egyptian and their mother is Irish). Yet Collier is unhappy about the loss of national identity in a post-national dispensation, adding what seems to me to be a rather brave comment coming from a liberal academic: “Lifestyles such as that of my family are dependent, and potentially parasitic, on those whose identity remains rooted, thereby providing us with the viable societies among which we choose. In the countries on which I work – the multicultural societies of Africa – the adverse consequences of weak national identity are apparent.” What comparison, if any, should we draw between this aperçu and Theresa May’s remark to the Tory Party faithful that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”?

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