The Politics of Migration by Sarah Spencer (editor)

A balanced debate on a heated topic
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The Independent Culture

The Political Quarterly is not and never has been an academic journal. William Robson, a public lawyer, Kingsley Martin and Leonard Woolf founded it in 1930 with the mission of being a bridge between the new social sciences and the intelligent general reader. It was to be intellectually demanding but written in plain English. Bernard Shaw put money into it. Keynes was on the board. It has quietly plugged away in that mode ever since. In recent years it has rewarded its subscribers with a fifth special number each year, sold as a separate book.

Sarah Spencer's symposium splendidly vindicates PQ's mission. Few subjects raise stronger and more contrary emotions than migration. In few other problems are the basic facts harder to establish, so little trusted, so often invented; and in few subjects is the law so tangled and policy so variable.

This is a small masterpiece of good editing: a good plan and a good team who deliver comprehensively and coherently. Here is a balance wholly lacking both in populist editors, who seek to convince readers that all asylum-seekers are bogus, and in those columnists who appear to believe that every asylum-seeker has been tortured or raped; or, if not, should be given refugee status to reward their initiative and endurance.

None of the contributors believes that any country can pursue an open-door policy. All are believers in the human and economic benefits of managed migration. None is so hypnotised by the rights and wrongs of asylum policy that they fail to notice that the numbers of legal immigrants with work permits now begins to exceed those of successful asylum-seekers. And the needs of legal immigrants can often be as great as those of the refugees.

Legal entry is employer-driven. The NHS would collapse without immigrant doctors and nurses. But import licences are also given for batches of unskilled workers whom employers need for the catering trades, office cleaning and supermarkets. These employers are under no obligation to offer language or orientation courses.

Knowing our economic need, ministers are beginning to take issue with the alarmist projections of the anti-migration lobby and the xenophobic prejudices of the popular press. But most big employers keep their heads down. David Blunkett recently made a major speech on managed migration policy and the education of unskilled immigrants; it was scarcely reported.

In this book one can find the history of British migration policy, the European and global dimensions, the economic impact, and studies of public opinion and identity. I would be unfair to readers if I did not share the advice I have just given a government adviser: if you cannot read it all, you must at least read Sarah Spencer's masterly summary.

Her introduction also makes a powerful case that government should be more forthcoming about the national advantages of a managed migration policy. It should not be "always suggesting that migration policy is a tightrope walk in which one false move could lead to disaster": a mind-set, she says, in which the fine line between "acknowledging the public's fears and reinforcing their prejudices" can too easily be crossed.