Editorial: You can’t shut out the world

Bronwen Maddox introduces the October issue
September 18, 2013

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George Osborne has it easy. So does Ed Miliband. Cuts in spending? Cutting the cord with union funding? These are powerfully unpopular, provoking intense retaliation. But they are decisions with clear-cut edges, ones that can be taken within a single parliament. That isn’t the case with the huge trends rolling in on the UK, triggered by the great shudders of demographic change and globalisation.

Immigration tops the list. As Paul Collier argues, many of those who are sanguine or enthusiastic about its impact fail to take account of the natural acceleration, as those who have arrived bring in their relatives. It is impossible to reject his call for the kind of direct discussion about how many immigrants Britain might want to let in, and which ones, questions which the US and Australia, built by immigrants, have more easily managed. As Rowan Williams points out, in his review of Collier’s book, the pressure will hardly ease, driven by conflict as much as economics. It is not possible to shut the door on the world; all that can be done, perhaps, is to negotiate the terms on which it is opened. And to acknowledge the scale of the change that will inevitably come; as Andrew Adonis points out, it is time now to prepare for London’s future as a city of 10m.

Collier is more direct in talking about the effects of immigration on those he rather clinically calls the “indigenous population” of the British Isles than are politicians embroiled in the debate about social mobility. It is, as Philip Collins points out, now the political consensus that mobility has stalled and that education is the answer. Yet they are probably all wrong, he argues, drawing on the landmark work of John Goldthorpe (see Jonathan Derbyshire’s interview) to argue that Britain is broadly a static society, then and now.

This argument is easily misinterpreted as meaning that education is pointless, although its proponents trip over themselves saying they don’t mean quite that. However, they fail to take enough account of immigration, or of competition for jobs with workers in other countries, and because of that they risk undervaluing what education can do to protect an individual against the effects of globalisation on jobs at home, or to give access to its rewards.

However, the notion that Britain can turn its back on the world is empty. The horror of the Syrian attacks shows why it should not want to—and it is a relief, after months of isolationist argument, to see AC Grayling and Bernard Kouchner stand up for the principle of humanitarian intervention, if acknowledging all the powerful reasons to hold back. One of those is that any intervention may go wrong; and the candid analysis at our Afghanistan roundtable makes just that point. But as Richard Dowden writes in “Mugabe won, Britain lost,” better to have influence than to be rebuffed, as he argues Britain now is by much of Africa.

Better to try for that influence than to shut the door. That will in any case prove impossible, as future conflicts, and the pressure of immigration, will show.