The homely figure of Mrs Gillian Duffy hovers over the issue of migrationin the UK, certainly, but also over all of the rich world. Gillian Duffy was the woman who, in the northern town of Rochdale, slipped out to buy bread and met Britains prime minister, Gordon Brown, during 2010s general election.
She told him she was concerned by the scale of eastern European immigration. He said migration in Europe works both ways, changed the subject, said he was glad to meet her, then, ensconced in his Jaguar, grumbled furiously that he should not have met such a bigoted woman.
Rupert Murdoch has a long arm: the forgotten microphone which his Sky News Channel had attached to Mr Browns lapel was still live and a delighted press corps became privy to the exchange. In minutes, it was global. Mrs Duffy became the patron saint (or sinner) of the migration debate because she and Brown perfectly encapsulate its unusual character. The issue cannot be understood without a grasp of the high and low.
Exceptional People is on the (very) high side. In a detailed, accessible and fluent way, it gives a series of good reasons why weespecially we in the rich countries should encourage migration. We should do so, first, for ethical reasons: since the majority who are poor and the minority who are comfortable (as well as the sliver who are rich) are so largely by chance, then on what moral grounds do we deny the majority a larger slice of the global pie As the authors remark, by doing sothrough our governmentswe act as medieval barons, keeping the peasants in their huts outside our gates. We should do it, too, because history is on its side. From the time when our human ancestors spread beyond the African plains, their wanderings have created a multitude of societiesdiverse, extraordinary, unique.
We should do it because it benefits us. US agriculture could not exist and be as productive as it is; the French and German car industries could not be the forces they are; for that matter, the drains of Britain would not be as free flowing as they are were it not for Mexican, North African, Turkish and Polish migrants. Far from taking jobs, migrants create them: an OECD study of 2009 found that increased immigration is accompanied by commensurate increases in total employment; and a separate estimate for 1999 found immigrants had contributed a net $10bn to the US economy in that year.
Finally, we should do it because it will happen anyway. The (rising) inequalities between states, the greater spread of diasporas who ease their fellows into the immigrant countries, the strongly increasing demand for education, the growing demographic problem in Europe, a future increase of ecological disasters in low lying countries such as the Maldives and Bangladeshall these push the exceptional people out to make a life for themselves in a strange, but richer, land.
But throughout these richer landsin Europe, Russia, South Africa, even the USMrs Duffys, often in much more malign forms, grow in number and political clout. She appears in queues for health services, sitting behind an immigrant family speaking a language she does not understand. She thinks she has paid lifelong taxes to fund these services and they get them for nothing. She has a nephew in construction, who finds his wages declining as gangs of east Europeans do his work quicker and cheaper. They will not be calmed by this books steady advocacy of borders inexorably opening; they will not share John Kenneth Galbraiths perplexity, when he askedwhat is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good (as migration)
And when the authors end with the declaration, as our distant ancestors would have told us, the earth is one country and all of humanity its citizens, the Mrs Duffys say: what have these strange new people done to earn the citizenship of my country
One of the largest tasks before politicians is to win acceptance of a cosmopolitanism which, for very many, is threatening and distasteful. It cannot be done, as is this books tendency, by dismissing all opposition as racism and xenophobia: the Gordon Brown error. Our culture, rights and living standards derive from our national citizenship: if we are to share it more than we do, we need a much greater and more strongly articulated sense that the others gain is not our loss: and thats a big job.
But yet . . . the real Mrs Duffy, wooed relentlessly, has joined the Labour party, voted for an MP with an East European name (Simon Danczuk) and praised her leader, Ed Miliband, son of an illegal immigrant. She turns out to be a saint, after all.
The writer is an FT contributing editor
The Financial Times Limited 2011
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future
Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan
Princeton University Press