In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

On Immigration and Open Borders


How are more liberal advocates of migration meant to proceed? (Edited: Naszwybir)

Speaking on the Sunday Politics, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that borders will become “irrelevant” by the end of the century. The Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington elaborated [1]:

Inevitably in this century we will have open borders. We are seeing it in Europe already. The movement of peoples across the globe will mean that borders are almost going to become irrelevant by the end of this century so we should be preparing for that and explaining why people move.

This interview lead to Yvette Cooper MP (Labour, Pontefract and Castleford), the former Shadow Home Secretary, responding in a statement [2]:

Labour needs to maintain a policy in favour of firm and effective border controls alongside help for refugees. I also disagree with John McDonnell about what will happen in the coming decades. Given the challenges we face, proper border checks are likely to become more important not less in the future.


The immigration debate is polarised within Britain, with rousing statements in support of opening up our borders or in praise of closing them down entirely. As British Future — “an independent, non-partisan thinktank” on integration and migration matters — discovered, there is a moderate majority that sees the benefits of immigration, but recognises the pressures it may also bring [3].

People were asked two polarising statements. Only 14% agreed with the liberal statement: “In an increasingly borderless world, we should welcome anyone who wants to come to Britain and not deter them with border controls.” Disturbingly, 25% backed the rejectionist statement: “The government should insist that all immigrants should return to the countries they came from, where they’re here legally or illegally.”

60% did not support either the ‘let them all in’ liberal statement or the ‘throw them all out’ rejectionist statement. This is what the report terms the ‘Anxious Middle’, in contrast to the ‘Migration Liberals’ on one side and ‘Rejectionists’ on the other.


That is a wide scope of opinion, but it is where the debate should be aimed. (Source: British Future)

Similarly, when asked by ICM what was closest to their view on immigration and the economy: 61% said “immigration brings both pressures and economic benefits, so we should control it and choose the immigration that’s in Britain’s best economic interests”. Just 7% said that “immigration is good for the economy and we should have as much as possible”, and a staunch 24% responded the closest view was “immigration is bad for the economy and we should have as little as possible”.

The Anxious Middle are not a single monolithic bloc of voters, and may have varying degrees and natures of concern about immigration into Britain.


The distribution of the middling opinion differs by party. (Source: British Future)

“Strong cultural commitment to anti-racism”

The report discusses how people should go about talking on the issue on immigration, keeping the fact that moderate beliefs on immigration form a majority in Britain completely central. Another point is that should be kept central is that British people “have a strong cultural commitment to anti-racism”. Dismissing every attempt to moderately reduce immigration levels as being driven either by racism or a desire to appeal to racists is both insulting and intellectually incoherent.

In continuation, the report draws focus on the ‘myth of myth-busting’, which is the idea that opposition to current migration levels is simply caused by public ignorance. It is implied that when people get the truth, they will clearly see the error of their ways and back immigration wholeheartedly. This approach fails, and not just in the debate on migration. A paper led Dr Skurnik of the University of Toronto found that the ‘facts and myths’ format of leafleting on the flu reduced the propensity to get a vaccination, because people mistakenly recall the myths as true statements [4]. The paper concluded:

The common ‘facts and myths’ format, used in many public information campaigns, runs the risk of spreading misinformation in an attempt to discredit it.

The report suggests claiming that people are misinformed, and will be enlightened after your lecture on the subject, is rarely an effective way of moving them to your position. Honest difference can arise through neither stupidity nor prejudice. Moreover, speaking about aggregate economic effects of migration, as I have done in the past [5], does not influence people who already believe ‘the economy’ is stacked against them.

A representative sample were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the following statement:

Immigrants put more into Britain than they take out. Their net contribution is equivalent to more than 4p on the basic rate of income tax, worth £700 per year to someone on an average yearly wage of £26,500, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Deelopment. This helps fund our public services, cuts the deficit and reduces the pressure for deeer cuts or higher tax rises.

The ICM poll found 30% agreed and 30% disagreed with this claim: the net agreement was zero.


The British public neither agrees nor disagrees with this claim. (Source: British Future)

Five steps

Five steps are to given to migration liberals. Firstly, stop wishing we did not have to talk about immigration. If someone says that ‘we can’t talk about immigration’, then we should demonstrate the claim is false in a calm and reasonable manner.

Secondly: stop looking for the killer fact that will prove the whole debate is a mistake. No such fact exists. The immigration debate is a tangled web of economic, cultural and ideological strands.

Thirdly: acknowledge that there are legitimate anxieties and concerns. Engaging a person’s concerns does not mean endorsing or reflecting mistaken misconceptions or flawed views, if they have any at all.

Fourthly: bring out the personal everyday lives behind the statistics. As much as it pains me to say, immigration is a political subject where firing a salvo of statistics may leave barely a dent. Immigrants are not angels nor demons, but typically people who came to this country to try and build a better lives for themselves and their families. The voices of migrants should be brought to the fore, in order to tell their stories.

Fifthly: unlock the future. This means that the demographic trends tend to favour this side, with younger people having more comfort on immigration, and other changes that have happened in recent history.

Open borders do not appear inexorable. The debate on immigration has to become more focussed on more moderate voices and fairer policies.


[1] BBC, 2016. Borderless world inevitable, says Labour’s John McDonnell. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[2] Syal, R., 2016. National borders are becoming irrelevant, says John McDonnell. The Guardian. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[3] British Future, 2014. How to talk about immigration. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[4] Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., and Schwarz, N., 2007. “Myths and facts” about the flu: Health education campaigns can reduce vaccination intentions. University of Toronto. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]

[5] Masters, A., 2013. Freer Borders. In Defence of Liberty. Available from: [Accessed: 1st February 2016]



This entry was posted on February 15, 2016 by in National Politics and tagged , , , .
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