Saturday, November 27, 2010

Immigration in Britain: Time to Make Sense

Theresa May made a statement in parliament which was remarkable for being so unremarkable: Almost everyone in the country knew what she is going to say, and she did.

In some ways, politicians feel happy when everyone is forewarned. In fact, this is a common practice today to release the texts of major speeches of world leaders to press well ahead of the actual speeches. But, Ms May should not draw comfort from this: Her lack of impact does not come from meeting expectations, but failing them.

If anything, the speech continues to show the 'fudge' that this government made its signature policy. The fact that they make big pronouncements backed by little tinkering of policy is by now well known. So far, for all the talk of reform, direction changes, big ideas, David Cameron's government is New Labour in Wolf's clothing. Most of the 'big' changes are not that big, most of the direction changes are actually the usual turn of the road, and most of its revolutions are destined to end in whimper. Ms May's speech is one more example of much ado about nothing yet again.

Let's stay out of detail at this time. What Ms May said can be summarized into three or four sentences. First, she implied that the government does not know how to keep its promise on reducing migration to Britain to 'tens of thousands by 2015'. The only way she knows is by hurting the economy and reducing Britain to an unattractive, ghetto state, and she intends to pursue the path. Second, she did some tinkering of numbers without attempting to explain why she is doing it. She said she intends the route from temporary migration to permanent settlement but showed very little how she intends to do it. She declared the government would stop Tier 1 General and possibly also the Post-Study Work visas for students, but did not make any attempt to review the existing numbers in the two categories, and any efforts to curb the abuse that has already happened. Third, she picked up a soft target - international students - and made some incoherent and impractical pronouncements about halving the student numbers from outside Europe, in complete denial of the realities of the outside world, like the things called globalization and knowledge economy.

If anything, the speech revealed confusion rather than clarification. One can make out the government may be deeply divided, as evident in the case of university funding, but this also revealed the gravitational tendencies of the ruling Conservative Party to drag Britain back into the Seventies. There was nothing liberal about Ms May's speech, not in content or the tone; the ideology was as clearly from Daily Mail as possible, with just a hint of irony that an intelligent human being would be forced to notice even when ideologically brain-washed.

Britain is facing economic ruin, not because George Osborne says so. It is facing the prospect because of its old country lifestyle and social expectations, while the world is changing. Whether or not we believe that the system will go on as it is even beyond the current global recession, Britain has little prospect to emerge as a winner. In fact, its social and economic decline is all but visible already. The only bright spot of Britain is its people, its knowledge and culture and its universities. There is a hint of realism in this otherwise medieval government when they talk about the emergence of a culture economy in Britain. That's the only thing that can keep Britain going.

But, at the same time, the government is up in arms against the forces that can get this culture economy thing going: Talent. They are not just against international students and knowledge exchange, but also British middle class students and even the study of humanities and social sciences in the universities. If the squeeze on funding of universities is not enough, they are adding the barriers to students coming to Britain day by day and removing the inducements. They have forgotten that the universities are not just supposed to be a posh club: May be Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne spent too much time playing Polo.

Britain's migration system is messy and open to abuse. Indeed. But anyone who ever had a brush with the system will point out that this is because of the way it is implemented, mindlessly and bureaucratically, and because of the lack of thinking and perspectives in policy-making. Playing with an absurd cap in numbers may sound politically convenient and may make the tabloids sell a few copies, but governing a country has more to it than running a good Public Relations company. What are Ms May's ideas about cracking down on abuse? What about more resources to the Border Agency to do their jobs properly? What about in-depth consultation with people in the know, those university officers and education businessmen, in what can be done to curb bogus migration but keep the UK education system open and vibrant? What we have got so far is a rushed, crowd-pleasing tinkering of existing systems: Surely the problem of migration is a complex issue to deserve more attention.

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