Britain will still need us immigrants

Posted on July 13, 2016

A picture from Twitter showing the nationality of workers in the NHS

A frequent sneer at the metropolitan UK elite — heard during and since the EU referendum campaign — is that they only interact with immigrants when giving instructions to the cleaner or ordering a crayfish and rocket sandwich at Pret A Manger.

What nonsense. While it is true that many recent immigrants have gone into lower-skilled occupations such as food preparation and cleaning, incomers play a huge role in high-skill sectors and have for years.

    Look at the website of any UK-based technology start-up, management consultancy or university faculty and run down the list of nationalities: French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Greek, not to mention American, Australian, Indian and Singaporean.

    Walk into any National Health Service hospital. There are immigrant porters and cleaners — but also doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and radiographers.

    When I, a South African immigrant, arrived in the UK in 1984, British friends told me I was crazy. There were 3m people unemployed. The miners were on strike. The whole country was miserable. I would never find a job.

    It took a while, but I did find a job, writing for oil and coal trade journals. London was a shabby place then but something was stirring. Britain was setting its entrepreneurial spirit free, opening itself to the world, and the world started flooding in.

    What happened next was not great for everyone. Some of the mining towns I reported on during that strike struggled to recover.

    But many other places boomed. Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds spruced themselves up. Cambridge became a leading technology centre.

    And London, shabby old London, became the greatest city on earth, with galleries, start-ups, restaurants, law firms, theatres and banks that the whole world came either to ogle at or work in.

    There were foreigners everywhere. They challenged the locals, worked for them, employed them and became their colleagues.

    The French talk about les trente glorieuses — the 30 years after the second world war during which France thrived and grew. Has there ever been a more thrilling time to live in the UK than in the 30 years from the mid-1980s until now?

    Many did not see it that way, as the EU referendum showed. They did not like what had happened to their country, and they especially did not like all those immigrants.

    Taking in large numbers has put some strain on everyone else. As ever, the poor have fewer resources to cope with that than the rich.

    Some immigrants abused the system. All communities have their miscreant minorities — even the long-settled British, several of whom have been scribbling abuse on immigrants’ property and telling them to go home. But, like everyone else, most immigrants work, pay their taxes and obey the law. And while you, our fellow UK residents, decide what to do with us after Brexit, let us remind you what we have done.

    We have run your companies, cleaned your offices, wheeled you into surgery, performed the surgery, sung lullabies to your children, taught physics to your children, designed your buildings, built your buildings, cooked your food, waited on your tables, stormed to Olympic medals, won Nobel Prizes, designed your websites, picked your fruit and wiped your ageing parents’ bottoms.

    Many of those jobs you can do yourselves. Some you may not want to.

    Following the Leave vote, Theresa May, soon to be prime minister, promised to bring immigrant arrivals down to “sustainable” levels.

    She said that she could not guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK until negotiating reciprocal arrangements with their countries. Even hardened Leave campaigners have been appalled by her apparent intention to use EU citizens as bargaining chips.

    But there is great support in the Conservative party for an “Australian-style” points system that will allow Britain to control its borders and decide who comes in.

    There is already a points system for non-EU migrants, and Mrs May, as home secretary, did not manage to bring their numbers down.

    Modern societies, especially ageing ones such as the UK, demand a flow of younger people to service them. Whatever your, and Mrs May’s, views on immigrants, you will probably need more of us than you think.

    michael.skapinker@ft.com

    Twitter: @Skapinker

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