Closing Britain’s doors turns creativity away

I WISH David Cameron would stop insulting my wife.

Of course, he doesn’t think he’s doing anything of the kind. His speech on immigration this week was scattered with careful phrases about wanting “the brightest and the best”, in between all the paragraphs detailing the slam of the national gate and the screwing tight of visa restrictions. He even deigned to drop the suggestion that employers should have to publish the number of immigrants they employ. But that is cold comfort: this was a statement about the need to cut immigrants’ numbers hard. Such words don’t make any newcomers feel welcome here.

As it happens, this Monday, as Cameron announced the Life in the UK test was a joke and would be rewritten, my wife was passing that very test. It was, indeed, a joke. It needs pulping, not rewriting. My wife would have been much happier answering Cameron’s preferred questions on British history and literature than the current spotter’s guide to quangos – her American high school studied more classic British literature than mine did. But the test should just be scrapped. Answering civil servants’ questions about Dickens and Queen Victoria is still an absurd hoop to have to jump through for the right to live in the UK.

Cameron should think again. Britain’s problem is less its immigrants – who are, at least, some testament to the relative attractiveness of the country he governs – but those members of the bright and the good who leave every year. Per capita, Britain has experienced the highest outflow in the OECD, with 10 per cent of its population living abroad. Thanks to our rate of skilled emigration, a new Adam Smith Institute paper shows that our net annual intake of skilled migrants is unsustainably low: lower than Switzerland, Germany and France.

Cameron thinks he can draw a clear line in the dirt, sorting the productive immigrant sheep from the idle foreign goats, bringing in the entrepreneurs and keeping out scroungers. But there is no clear line. The American Dream was about demonstrating that people could travel from hopeless penury to riches in a single lifetime. Steve Jobs’s Syrian father arrived in the US on a student visa. How would Cameron have picked that winner from the waiting line? What he needs is a vision for the UK that liberates human potential and attracts creative energy.

That’s a problem, because, as Richard Florida’s research on the Creative Class shows, if you want to attract creative people you have to value a plural and polyglot social mix. Florida writes of this group that “diversity is simply something they value in all its manifestations… visible diversity serves as a signal that a community embraces the open meritocratic values of the creative age.”

Research carried out in the US shows that about half of all the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are immigrants. In addition, about half of all Nobel prizewinners in the US between 1901 and 1991 were foreign-born or first-generation immigrants. But you can’t attract that sort of contribution by trying to juggle a welcome for entrepreneurs with a suspicion of foreigners.

Cameron’s position is not only ugly, but foolish. You cannot open a door with one hand and shut it with the other.

First published: City A.M., 14/10/11

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Filed under Economics, Freedom, Politics

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