Economic migrants leaving their homes in a poorer country to find work in a richer one.
If, like me, your musical memories consist of the likes of Duran Duran, Blondie, The Human League, The Sex Pistols and Bon Jovi, then you’ll probably also recognise my opening paragraph as the backstory for the hugely popular 1980s ITV comedy, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. For those who don’t remember the series, here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the plot:
The first series, co-produced by Witzend Productions and Central Television for ITV in 1983, is the story of seven out-of-work construction workers from various parts of England who are forced to look for work in West Germany, although it focuses initially on three men from Newcastle upon Tyne making the journey to Germany, with the others being introduced along the way. (The title refers to their farewells to their wives and girlfriends – “Auf Wiedersehen” being German for “Farewell” or “Goodbye”, and “Pet” being a North-East English term of endearment).
Back in the early 80s, it wasn’t at all uncommon for British construction workers to look for work elsewhere. In 1983, the year that Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was first broadcast, unemployment had hit a record high. The late 70s had left the UK as the “sick man of Europe”, with strikes destroying industries and the economy in tatters. The Winter of Discontent in 1978-79 proved the nail in the coffin as far as Jim Callaghan’s Labour government was concerned, and in May of that year Margaret Thatcher swept to power. Four years later, in 1983, a snap election saw Thatcher’s Conservative party retain power with a landslide victory over a demoralised and bitterly divided Labour.
Despite her electoral achievements, though, Thatcher’s government had yet to achieve the economic success that was later to be the hallmark of her administration. Unemployment continued to rise throughout her first term, and it wasn’t until Arthur Scargill’s disastrous attempt to use the NUM against her in 1984 that the power of the unions was finally broken. In 1983, things still looked pretty bleak. And, for the ordinary working man, there was a double whammy: the effing Tories in power and no jobs to go to. Putting up with a government you didn’t vote for is a lot easier when you’re still doing OK on a personal level. But many in the traditional heavy industries were a long way from that.
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet drew on that background. As, too, did other seminal drama series of the time, such as Boys from the Blackstuff. Although nominally a comedy, Pet was rooted in the same realistic backdrop of poverty and unemployment in the North of England.
Germany, by contrast, was doing pretty well in 1983. Inflation was among the lowest in Europe, unemployment was also low, and the German economy was growing steadily. The construction industry, always very sensitive to the overall economic health of a country, was doing well there too. Britain’s economy was actually growing faster than Germany’s at the time, but from a much lower base. We had a long way to go to catch up.
It wasn’t surprising, therefore, that many British construction workers followed the path depicted in Pet. Germany offered plenty of work, and paid higher wages. To be sure, it also meant leaving your comfort zone and living – often in cheap and crowded accommodation – far from home in a place with a different language, different money and different food. But for those willing to make the move, it was worth it.
Fast forward three decades, and we’re still seeing a large number of people from a poorer country leaving home to look for work in a richer one. The difference is that this time, it isn’t Brits moving to Germany, it’s Eastern Europeans moving to Britain. But if you disregard the nationalities, what’s underneath is remarkably similar.
Just as in the early 1980s, what we have in the 2010s is a rich and financially successful country – the UK now, Germany back then – proving a magnet to jobseekers from countries that are much further behind on the economic growth path.. For 1980s Britain, read 21st century Poland, Lithuania and Romania. We have become the destination, and not the point of departure.
Yes, it’s true that we’ve had a tough few years here as well, following the global crash at the end of the previous decade. But we’ve also weathered the storm more successfully than many other countries. The UK is now one of the most vigorous economies in Europe. Unemployment and inflation remain low, despite the downturn. According to Dan Hannan MEP, writing in the Daily Mail, we have created more jobs over the past four years than the other 27 members of the EU put together. So it isn’t surprising that the UK is an attractive source of work for people from other parts of the continent. They’re coming here because we have been so successful.
This is the point that the anti-immigration complainers are missing. The reason why we have an immigration “problem” is because we don’t have an economic problem. Even with the late-noughties recession, we’re still light years ahead, metaphorically speaking, of where we were in the early 80s.
Love her or hate her, Margaret Thatcher’s economic legacy was indisputably a success. So – let’s not be partisan about this – was Tony Blair’s. It’s arguable that the wheels came off under Gordon Brown, but to be fair that wasn’t entirely his fault. And, unlike the long drawn out car crash of the Wilson/Callaghan years in the 70s which in turn took over a decade to untangle, the downturn under Brown has been swiftly reversed under David Cameron’s coalition government. We’re already back to within touching distance of the 2008 peak.
The simple fact is that immigration and economic prosperity go together. Every successful economy has net immigration. In particular, every successful economy has net inward economic migration – the kind of temporary migration that saw Geordies working in Düsseldorf in the early 1980s and sees Poles working in Evesham in 2014.
So how do we fix the immigration problem? It’s simple, really. We turn the clock back to the days when nobody wanted to come here, but our workers wanted to go elsewhere. We create mass unemployment so that there are no jobs for the immigrants to take. We screw up the economy so that other countries are richer than ours. We promote rampant inflation so that our money becomes worthless. And we watch the economic migrants – our own as well as those from other countries – go elsewhere while Britain gets left behind. Never mind Ukip Calypso, this is what we’ll all be singing if Nigel Farage gets his way:
Of course, we all know that things did eventually get better after The Specials released that single in 1981. In the long run, it was Thatcherism that rescued Britain rather than destroyed it. But we had to go through some pretty dark days to reach the sunshine. Those are the days that Ukip would take us back to if they could.
Fortunately, there is another way. Instead of harking back to some fondly-imagined (but badly remembered) past, we can continue to build on what we’ve achieved over the past four years. It’s time to say Auf Wiedersehen, Ukip.