Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, by Philippe Legrain,

I read this book last week. It's worth a read. Here's a review:

There are two virtual certainties about Ireland in 2007. The first is that immigration will continue to have a profoundly transforming effect on our society.

The second is that, during the general election campaign, no leading politician will want to talk about it.

This is a depressing state of affairs, but we really only have ourselves to blame. The issue of immigration has been hijacked by extremists from both sides: those who want an open-door policy and those who don’t want to let anyone in at all. In this stormy climate of insufferable piety and poisonous xenophobia, we desperately need voices of moderation and good sense to speak up.

Financial journalist Philippe Legrain isn’t exactly a moderate, but his new book does contain a lot of good sense. It is a straightforward argument for a vast increase in the free movement of people, using first-hand reportage and detailed analysis to make his case.

Along the way, he demolishes some of the more transparent anti-immigration myths, scorns the ineffective border policies of the US and Europe and insists that national identities are far more fluid than cultural conservatives would like to admit.

Legrain’s book is full of striking information and thought-provoking statistics, and even those already well-versed in the subject will learn a lot from it. But it is, in the end, a polemic and, like most polemics, it is ultimately undermined by its blatant lack of balance.

Legrain is, at heart, a free marketeer (his previous book was an equally passionate argument for globalisation),and his argument for mass migration is primarily an economic one. He contends that if we want to increase global trade in goods and services, as most people do, it is nonsense to place restrictions on the people who are actually providing those goods and services.

The obvious answer to this, in a phrase that is becoming increasingly popular with the Irish left, is that we live in a society rather than an economy.

The French exchequer has presumably benefited just as much from foreign workers as the Irish one has, but that isn’t much consolation when ethnic tensions lead to riots on the streets of Paris.

If countries were just giant pieces of land with no national characteristics, as Legrain sometimes appears to believe, then these problems simply wouldn’t exist.

The fundamental difficulty, which this book regrettably glosses over, is that a clear majority of people feel privately uncomfortable about the rapid pace of modern immigration and are resentful when told that their worries amount to little more than covert racism.

When Labour leader Pat Rabbitte pointed out the obvious fact that Irish workers might have some competition on their hands from an influx of Polish immigrants, two things happened immediately: he was accused of scaremongering by media commentators and his party’s poll ratings sharply increased.

Wherever you think the blame lies, this gap between official policy and public opinion has to be bridged.

Legrain is at his best when describing the enormous benefits immigrants can bring to society, as long as they are treated with respect and allowed to make full use of their talents.

As an Englishman with a French name, he is well placed to argue that London would be a much less exciting and prosperous place without its ethnic diversity. But when it comes to thornier issues such as speaking a common language, respect for heritage and the effects of multiculturalism on social cohesion, he too often retreats into glib platitudes and meaningless waffle.

For all its faults, Legrain’s book is a vigorous and stimulating contribution to one of the most important debates of our time. It’s just a shame that so few of our leaders show any interest in having it.

Andrew Lynch
The Sunday Business Post

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