Nativism or Cheap Labor?

Oct. 6, 2021

Great Britain faces a dilemma.

For as long as I’ve been aware of politics, there’s been a struggle over immigration policy between nativists and businesspeople. Simply put, the former want to keep out as many immigrants as possible; the latter want them in because they’re cheap labor.

It’s been a dilemma for the Republican Party, because nativism appeals to its base, but it needs the financial support of the businessmen who want cheap labor. This dilemma has only intensified as Republicans find that opposing immigration brings them more and more political success.

Lately this conflict has been turned down to an uneasy simmer in America. But it’s boiling over across the pond.

Great Britain has been having a terrible time with its supply chains lately, to the point where soldiers are having to deliver gasoline supplies and the meat industry is recruiting prisoners to work in its factories. Much of this is due to Brexit, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. It was sold to British voters as a way to restrict immigration, which, under EU rules, was open to any holder of a passport from an EU nation. When Brexit passed in 2016 – and was reaffirmed in 2019 by a vote that returned the Conservative Party to power – most of the Czechs, Poles, Slovenians and others who had been driving the trucks and staffing the factories went back home, and not enough Brits could be found to replace them.

British companies are begging the government to grant visa waivers to European labor, but so far, they’re getting the brushoff. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that the food and other industries simply offer higher wages.

“The answer is...not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs,” Johnson told a recent Conservative Party conference. “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration.”

That grinding sound you hear coming across the Atlantic is a lot of British businesspeople gnashing their teeth. My reaction: Pass the popcorn.

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