Sean O'Grady: Migrants can put the Great back in Britain

Ending immigration has never eliminated benefit fraud
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The Independent Online

Maybe, like the war on drugs, the best thing that can be done in the "battle for our borders" is to surrender and make the best of it.

For a start there is little that any government can do to prevent workers from eastern Europe coming here to work anyway, and they are the bulk of the total. A true "immigration cap" would be illegal under EU treaties. Poles, Lithuanians and Slovaks and others have a right to fix our plumbing and serve us coffee, or "swamp us" as it is usually termed. Romanians and Bulgarians can't, so that particular "flood" has been stemmed.

That may not last. The EU obliges Britain, by 31 December of this year to demonstrate that lifting current labour market access to citizens from Bulgaria and Romania threatens a "serious disturbance of its labour market". Why, say, 10,000 building workers from the Czech republic are less "disturbing" than 10,000 turning up from the Balkans is not clear. If things go as badly as some think in the eurozone, the UK may also once again become attractive to a new generation of migrants from the distressed economies of Portugal, Spain, Greece and Ireland. Some cap.

With a name like mine you will forgive me for believing that their loss will be Britain's gain. Let me offer you a bigger vision than the "Big Society" – the "Big Economy": for Britain to become a regional economic superpower and overtake Germany. We would then be guaranteed a place at the top table, to afford the social services and pensions we deserve, and all the rest.

To be a productive and prosperous nation we need people, lots of them, and the younger and better skilled the better. Immigrants tend to be young and enterprising. They work harder, often; think of the thousands toiling, yes, often illegally, in sweat shops, cleaning hotels and hospitals, serving behind bars or waiting on tables, driving minicabs at all hours and working in care homes tending to our parents and grandparents. Their children often go into the professions or start their own businesses – like the Kenyan and Ugandan Asians I grew up with in Leicester.

You might despise an overwhelmingly immigrant workforce, but you can hardly call them bone idle. There are a few groups, Bangladeshi women, for example, where cultural factors do lead to low participation in the workforce. But they are not the rule. And if migrants do abuse the benefits system we should pursue them. A fraud is a fraud. Ending immigration has never eliminated that particular branch of human ingenuity.

Think of the most vibrant economies in history: America, Argentina and Britain in the 19th-century; western Europe and Japan in the 1960s; China, Brazil, Indonesia and India today; Australia for most of its history. All had rapidly expanding, youthful populations, some of them by attracting immigrants. Contrast them with the sclerotic, ageing economies of today – southern Europe and Japan.

When people object that Britain is "overcrowded" they are right – in one sense. Housing is scarce, and expensive. That, though, means we have too few houses, not too many immigrants. You do not have to travel in the UK very far to encounter green fields, ripe for development. Our commuter trains and roads are appallingly congested; So let's build some more.

As James Dyson tells us today, let our immigrants also do groundbreaking research in universities. Let them, as they do now, run Lloyds Banking Group, captain the England cricket team and marry the Queen. High immigration means we could again afford aircraft carriers with planes on them, and free nursing care, homes and higher education for all. We would have lost the battle for our borders; but won the economic war.

s.ogrady@independent.co.uk

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