Deborah Orr: Open borders are the only alternative to the erection of a repressive fortress state

The Home Office is chucking away time and money in efforts to resist a fast-evolving and shrinking world
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sometimes I wonder why we all make such a big deal out of teaching our children to share. It's not as if any of the structures they'll encounter as adults involve much sharing. On the contrary, most adults are deeply suspicious of the notion, and entirely against it when it extrudes beyond the realm of the immediate family or, at the most generous, a tightly proscribed community.

In fact, the prevailing political culture in Britain and in most developed countries is obsessively geared towards keeping sharing to a minimum. Children and naïve adults quite often find themselves genuinely puzzled by the great international conundrum whereby a few lucky inhabitants of the planet have access to everywhere and everything, while many more have nothing at all.

"Why can't we just share the wealth of the planet, man," they ask themselves. "There's enough food for everyone." The reason, of course, is because in general we don't like sharing at all. In fact we hate it, just as toddlers do. Puzzled by this reversal of their childhood conditioning, many young people cling on for a while to political idealism. All but a few get deprogrammed eventually though, and come to realise that "sharing" is one of the childish things that it's best to put away.

The US, which likes to consider itself as the most generous nation on earth, has just, in the person of Susan Schwab, US trade negotiator at the ruined World Trade Organisation talks, thrown all of its toys out of the pram in protest against sharing. In this case, the mere prospect of cutting farming subsidies in order to spread the benefits of agricultural trade beyond the usual boundaries was a sharing mechanism that was unacceptable to her and her government.

Apologists will explain this attitude by declaring that the US is attempting to preserve a particular way of life in the tightly proscribed community it calls "this great nation of ours". Funnily enough, exactly the same argument is used by Andrew Green, of Migrationwatch, when he explains why he's in favour of the free movement of goods and services, but not the free movement of people.

His argument is one that is appealing to the majority, who feel consoled when politicians talk of being "swamped by migrants" or regret the passing of the "English way of life". He explains that mass migration is a no-no because "the industrialised countries of Europe wish to preserve key elements of their economy, which are of great importance to their social structures". In other words, they don't want to share, because they perceive that sharing will have a negative impact on themselves.

This reluctance to share - to accommodate the needs and wants of others - is what renders the doctrine of globalisation into hypocrisy. All those who argue for the free movement of goods and services, yet wish to maintain the restricted movement of people, are saying the same thing: "We want your stuff, but you're not having ours!"

One almost feels sorry for the Home Office, with its mad attempts to form these irreconcilable elements into an "immigration system". The poor wonks and the addled politicians are now arguing that the Home Office is "modernising" in response to a changing world. In fact it is doing the opposite and chucking away time and money in its efforts to resist the inexorable consequences of a shrinking and fast-evolving world. Its efforts, one way or another, are doomed.

One of the fabulous cons of capitalism is its persuasion of its eager disciples that "sharing" doesn't help people. On the contrary, by making sure that all transactions must have considerably greater advantage for the most powerful participant in any exchange, one promotes a more dynamic form of sharing - exploitation - that, goes the myth, is capable of continuing to generate new wealth indefinitely.

This way, all those who are in possession of wealth already are relieved to be told that sharing is not only unnecessary but also destructive. Giving, it should be noted, is encouraged by capitalists in the form of philanthropy. This again is because it is a pure transaction, involving the exchange of wealth for gratitude, and thus avoids "sharing" completely.

The latest ravening horde arriving on these shores to grab a piece of our action and erode another stratum from our national identity are the Poles, streaming this way in what Professor John Salt, of University College London, and Professor Phil Rees, of Leeds University, call "the largest ever single national group of entrants" to the UK.

Though actually, if we want to be European about it, they're Europeans too, so there's no migration involved at all. The great thing about the European project - and of course the single thing conservatives hate most - is its commitment to the gradual, multilateral opening of national borders. Obviously, there's trepidation because the new countries and those earmarked for future entry are seen as having little that we want. But the truth is that working migrants, with their habits of saving and sending money back to their families, are the most committed motors of those trickle-down effects of capitalism that we're supposed to wish for.

The gradual introduction of open borders - not just in Europe but around the world - is the only alternative to the cultivation of repressive fortress states. The latest Home Office plan for immigration continues down the latter track.

The saddest aspect of the whole immigration debacle is the idea that secure borders can be maintained alongside a regard for human rights. Anyone who has been to any of the detention centres around Britain, with their bare little kangaroo courts, can see that neither this nor its dark companion, organised illegal immigration and costly legal advocacy, is compatible with any idea of common human standards.

The whole idea of strict immigration laws is concerned with deterrence. Therefore the treatment of those seeking to come and work in Britain can never be fair. Fairness would act as a pull factor and that is to be avoided; cruelty and lack of sympathy to the needs of the individual are inherent in the process, because the treatment of the individual has nothing to do with his or her own inherent qualities and everything to do with the effect their treatment will have on the decisions of those minded to follow in their footsteps.

Only a twin-track strategy - one that places emphasis on making "abroad" a place people are less likely to leave (by reforming international trade rules in a way that has so far proved impossible) and making "here" a place that people have less difficulty in coming to - can offer any real hope of fostering a globalised economy whose inhabitants all "wish to preserve key elements of their economy, which are of great importance to their social structures". If we don't wise up to this notion soon, then the toys we're fighting over will all be broken anyway.