They will keep on coming

Migration delusions

The Tory leadership rivals’ attempts to outbid each other on being ‘hard on immigration’ promote delusions, argues Mike Macnair

Liz Truss would expand the scheme of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda (just after the chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee called for a review of US support for Rwanda on human rights grounds …).1

Rishi Sunak would, in addition, revive the dodgy idea of using cruise ships (in financial trouble these days) as new “hulks” to accommodate asylum-seekers at sea, as were convicts from 1776 (when the outbreak of the American revolution stopped transportation to the American colonies) until the early 19th century.2 These pieces of kite-flying are merely a bidding war to show Tory members, who are about to elect their new leader (and prime minister), that both of the remaining candidates will be tough on immigration.

Tony Blair (in)famously promised to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. “Tough on the causes of crime” never meant much. The Tories, of course, always denied that ‘crime’ had any causes other than human wickedness (and, behind that, the Christian doctrine of ‘original sin’). But “tough on crime” implied increased police spending, which increases the recording of crimes and the extremely expensive use of imprisonment. Its marginal effect in reducing crime by ‘incapacitating’ offenders is outweighed by its stronger, opposite effect of socialising prisoners to repeat offending. Even Tory home secretaries, if they stay in office long enough, end by trying to reduce prison numbers (if only to save money).

‘Tough on immigration’ has been ideologically ascendant for decades now; but nobody has suggested ‘tough on the causes of immigration’. Why not? ‘Tough on the causes of crime’ was a nice piece of spin, in which ‘the causes of crime’ could be suggested to be social inequality of a sort which could be ameliorated by tinkering at the edges with benefit improvements, expanded educational access, and so on (in the Blair-Brown partnership, this was Brown’s territory as chancellor). It could thus be within the framework of the ‘national unity’ beloved of Labour leaderships. But to think about the causes of immigration immediately poses the question of the place of Britain in the global hierarchy. And it also poses that of the global dynamics of US imperialism’s responses to its relative decline, and to its defeat in Vietnam, after Nixon’s break with the gold standard in August 1971. To discuss the causes of migration at all - except in Tory terms of the wickedness of immigrants - is thus inconsistent with the British nationalism of the Labour Party.


In Tory and Tory-influenced discourse, “economic migrants” are the fundamental sinners.3 This displays double standards, since within Britain “strivers” who seek to improve their situation by hard work and willingness to move are Tory heroes, as opposed to those “scroungers” who claim benefits. Norman Tebbit in 1981 famously argued that the unemployed should do as his father did in the 1930s, when he “got on his bike to look for work”.4 So it’s great when Brits migrate in search of better economic prospects, but only a problem when foreigners migrate to Britain - for the same reason.

The starting point has to be the numbers. Fortunately, a May 2022 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper provides us with quite a lot of information.5 We have to start with the UK population, because this should give us some sense of proportion. At around 50 million in 1950, the UK population grew to around 57 million in 1990, and now stands at around 67 million. In 1950-90 this growth was mainly “natural increase”, meaning that more people were born than died.6 Net migration (the number of immigrants, less the number of emigrants) was, in this period, more often than not negative: thus, for example, in 1968, the year of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of blood’ speech against black immigration, 56,000 more people emigrated than immigrated.

‘Anti-immigration’ was, thus, in this period, when net migration was usually negative, necessarily code for racism against people of colour, on the basis of the inherited ideologies of British colonialism. The British left, having campaigned against immigration control ideology on the basis that it was racist (which it certainly was in the late 1960s-70s), lost sight of the underlying sectionalism/national chauvinism - not imperialist racism - that informed Tory campaigns against French Huguenot (Protestant) refugees in the 1680s, and so on, and that has become far more important since the 1990s.

Around 1993 net migration turned consistently positive and became the main driver of UK population growth. It is probable that a main cause of this development was that universities, including the ‘new university sector’ (former polytechnics and colleges) were at this time heavily incentivised by new higher education funding regimes to seek to attract overseas (non-European Union) students. Students on degrees lasting more than one year count in the statistics as “immigrants”, and they are the largest single component of motivations to come to Britain (36%): in 2019 238,000 out of a total of 681,000 immigrants. There have been periodic suggestions that students should be removed from the migration figures: the effect for 2019 would be to reduce net migration from 271,000 to 33,000 (409,000 people emigrated), but this would make UK statistics inconsistent with the rest of the world. It would also probably be misleading, since in the first place the overseas students who graduate will be replaced by new overseas students, so that overseas student recruitment for three-year degrees of 238,000 is a permanent addition to UK population of 714,000; and, secondly, a significant proportion of overseas students (not precisely known) go on to employment in the UK.7 (The second most common reason for migrating (32%) is moving to the UK to take up an actual job.)

The second element in the shift is likely to be delayed consequences of the 1986 ‘Big Bang’ deregulation of financial services, which, after an initial boom-bust, led to the massive expansion of the London financial sector; and of the 1992 ‘Black Wednesday’, in which the UK was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). Though this was immediately embarrassing to the Major government, it was in fact to the UK’s medium-term benefit (just as the US leaving the gold standard in 1971 has been to the US’s benefit to this day.) The effect is that competitive devaluation (through floating currency) cheapens exports, and hence allows the export of unemployment to countries which are unable to devalue - in this case, the ERM and, since 1995, the euro zone countries. The net result is that there are jobs to be had in the UK (and Brexit has produced actual labour shortages in at least some sectors8), while International Monetary Fund ‘structural adjustment’ programmes, the effects of the euro, and so on, produce unemployment in other countries.

Back to the proportions. Taking the 2019 figures, about 1% of the total UK population immigrated (removing the overseas students gives 0.6%). Similarly, if only approximately, 0.6% of the population emigrated. Positive net migration running over 30 years does produce a significant increase in population, as we have seen; but those willing to move at any one time make up a pretty small proportion of that population. Why?

The answer, which is important, is that there are in fact very substantial disincentives for moving, even long-distance within the UK, let alone from country to country. In first place is the simple cost: this is a particular obstacle to the young. Second, where the jobs are, land prices go up, so that migrating in search of a better job often means paying more for less housing. Third, for people with children, migrating potentially means the loss of family and social networks which support childcare (particularly grandmothers). Fourth, there are cultural differences even within the UK (northern and southern England as well as Scotland, Wales and the Six Counties of Northern Ireland), which may produce a degree of discomfort in moving. The case is very much stronger in relation to migrating between countries, which may involve having to speak your second or third language, as well as radical changes in the sort of legal order, and so on. Finally, credentialism is generally national, so that skilled workers, if they migrate, may have to take unskilled jobs for lack of the relevant credentials.

The next consequence of all these features is that the ‘pull factor’ of the ‘striver’ searching for a better job, a better life or adventure overseas is a pretty limited driver for migration: we can see it among overseas students, among managers in multinational firms, and among academics, but not much more widely. Far more important is the ‘push factor’: by causing unemployment and ‘austerity’ (or worse) in the country from which migrants come, migrants are driven to follow the jobs. The compulsion is not as extreme as the Atlantic slave trade, or the London orphans who the City sold to Arkwright to staff his mills as indentured labour, the late 19th century coolies, or ‘modern slavery’ arrangements. But it is compulsion nonetheless.

This explains why the UK was roughly in balance with migration during the period of the post-war boom (which, on a pull-factor theory of migration, should have sucked lots of migrants in), but then became characterised by net migration, once the effects of ‘neoliberal’ financialised globalisation began to feed through in the 1990s. The policies the USA and UK promoted from the 1980s substantially worsened conditions in other countries, thereby creating economic push-factors which promoted migration.

The figures I have given, and the examples, relate to the UK. But the underlying principles are true across the board. The rise in pressure for economic migration is the product of the radical preference for creditor and financial sector interests adopted, gradually, after the break-up of the Bretton Woods regime in 1971, and accelerated in the 1994 GATT II (‘general agreement on tariffs and trade’) deal. By prioritising the free movement of capital, and ‘solutions’ to inequality between nations based on loans and financial engineering, the result is the financially enforced movement of labour. The ‘immigration problem’ in the UK is, frankly, marginal by comparison with the problems affecting migrant labour elsewhere in the world.


The creation of pressure from refugees and asylum-seekers is a more extreme form of the same compulsion. The numbers are a lot smaller - 37,000 asylum applicants in 2021, or 6% of immigrants. Small numbers of asylum applicants have been an element of migration since the time when Marx was exiled in London. As with economic migrants, the numbers remained limited through the ‘cold war’ period. The pattern is: while the ‘authoritarian’ nationalist regimes produced a trickle of asylum-seekers, US and allied interventions to enforce ‘human rights’ through sanctions, bombs and invasions produce state failures, hand power to religious nutcases and gangsters, and in consequence produce floods of refugees and asylum-seekers.

I say ‘US and allied interventions’ intentionally, although quite a lot of the events in question are ostensibly merely civil wars or local wars. But the fact is that the US has, since its defeat in Vietnam, avoided direct intervention with US ‘boots on the ground’ (Afghanistan and Iraq remain exceptional cases). Instead, siege warfare, euphemistically called ‘economic sanctions’, proxies (as with Saudi Arabia in Yemen), and proxies of proxies (as in the Saudi and Gulf-state Islamist client forces in Syria) are used to wreck states whose leaderships in one way or another ‘diss’ the US capo or have done so at some time in the past. This method costs massively less than the reconstruction of South Korea as a front-line capitalist state - or the failed attempt to reconstruct South Vietnam for the same ends, but without (as in South Korea) expropriating the landlord class. It also avoids awkward questions in Congress about war powers, since the US is funding and training overseas actors rather than being formally militarily engaged. The list is long - Angola, Mozambique, Afghanistan, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua … down to the US’s 2014 operation in Kyiv and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The consequences are mere destruction and flight of capital (quite a lot of which ends up in the US financial system as a safe haven), without any real chance of recovery - hence making large ongoing numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers.

This is a US policy, driven by the particular responses of the US to its relative decline. Britain, at the equivalent stage of relative decline, but with continued absolute dominance in the later 19th century, expanded its colonial territories to provide captive markets. But Britain is now a subordinate ally of the US, and one which takes less distance from US policy than other subordinate allies; and the City of London is an offshore financial centre licensed by the USA. So Britain shares the US’s responsibility for this covert form of aggressive war: and, in doing so, the country should naturally expect to receive a good many refugees and asylum-seekers …


Both the Tories’ policy on immigration and the ideas of the labour movement and the left are governed by delusions. The Tory case is simpler: ‘cracking down on immigration’, which they have been doing ever since the Heath government, will not reduce the pressures which drive immigration, but only result in more public spending and, in the end - like Tory home secretaries being driven to reduce imprisonment - amnesties, without admitting the money was wasted.

On the labour movement side, the delusion is that of the liberal approach - ‘Asylum-seekers welcome here’, and so on - which goes on asserting that because immigration increases economic output (true) it cannot make workers worse off (false). It should be blindingly obvious that more people competing for jobs allows the employers to offer less; and the rises in private-sector wages in the face of labour shortages illustrates the point in the other direction.9

However, labour-movement support for immigration controls as a solution to this problem merely buys into the Tories’ delusion just discussed. The effect of ‘immigration controls’ is not actually to control immigration, but to create an increasingly large class of illegal immigrants - who are absolutely at the mercy of their employers. The effect is thus to drive down wages.

In this paper we have twice printed Ben Lewis’s translation of the 1907 resolution of the Second International on the question of migration.10 This begins with the proposition that “the immigration and emigration of workers are phenomena that are just as inseparable from the essence of capitalism as unemployment, overproduction and workers’ underconsumption”. And it goes on to recognise the problems migration causes for the workers’ movement, and to propose concrete measures for how to deal with these - most especially by endeavouring to fight for across-the-board minimum standards of wages and conditions, and to organise immigrant workers.

One point, however, definitely needs to be added. This is the point demonstrated by the course of events since the 1970s: that is, that the freedom of capital to move inherently entails that labour is forced to move. It is not an interest of the working class that everyone should be obliged to uproot themselves, whenever capital thinks that production could be ‘more efficiently’ carried on somewhere else: rather, the class interest of the working class is in general human development, wherever we happen to be.

And that implies fighting to destroy capital’s freedom to move.

  1. ‘Tory leadership: Truss and Sunak promise crackdown on migration’ BBC News July 14; ‘US senator questions aid to Rwanda over human rights role in Congo’ Reuters July 26.↩︎

  2. ‘Rishi Sunak’s policy to house Channel migrants in cruise ships “was laughed off the table by cabinet ministers”’ Mail Online July 26: www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_Hulks.↩︎

  3. Eg, ‘Priti Patel urged to justify claim that most boat migrants are not real refugees’ The Guardian November 2 2021; ‘Tory calls refugees “economic migrants” who want UK “to pull down statues and rewrite history”’: www.indy100.com/politics/gerald-howarth-ukrainian-refugees-lbc (June 12 2022).↩︎

  4. Eg, ‘“Suspicious strivers” hold the key to Tory election prospects’: lordashcroftpolls.com/2012/10/suspicious-strivers-hold-the-key-to-tory-election-prospects (October 5 2012); ““The Labour Party are on the side of the strikers - the Conservatives are on the side of the strivers,” Sunak said.” ‘Sunak criticises railway unions for new strike dates’ The Guardian July 25 2022. Tebbit: www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780191826719.001.0001/q-oro-ed400010663.↩︎

  5. commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/sn06077. Unless otherwise attributed, numbers below are from this publication or from the accompanying spreadsheet at the same web reference.↩︎

  6. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/articles/overviewoftheukpopulation/2020.↩︎

  7. The Tory government is, in fact, attempting to encourage this through the ‘graduate route’: www.hepi.ac.uk/2022/06/20/humanising-the-international-student-experience-the-post-study-reality-of-gaining-uk-employment (June 20 2022).↩︎

  8. Eg, ‘Farmers suffer labour shortages and food waste as workers struggle with new Brexit visas’ Daily Express July 5; ‘UK business lobby group calls for government help over labour shortages’ FT July 14 2022; ‘Economic Affairs Committee launches new inquiry on labour shortages’: www.bighospitality.co.uk/Article/2022/07/29/Economic-Affairs-Committee-launches-new-inquiry-on-labour-shortages (July 29).↩︎

  9. www.statista.com/statistics/800658/wage-growth-uk-by-industry-sector.↩︎

  10. ‘Border controls: reactionary by nature’ Weekly Worker April 3 2014: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1004/border-controls-reactionary-by-nature; and ‘Reactionary by nature’ November 7 2019: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1274/reactionary-by-nature.↩︎