Lord Hannan of Kingsclere was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Institute for Free Trade.
The Economist occasionally publishes tables that show how much countries like each other. Unsurprisingly, almost every nation puts itself at the top of its own list, with approval ratings in the nineties.
The exception is the UK, which ranks itself third, behind Australia and New Zealand and a whisker ahead of Canada.
We imagine the Old Dominions as our better selves. They have kept our monarchy, parliamentary system, common law, sports, sense of humour, fair play, indignation at injustice and readiness to stand up to tyrants.
But they seem somehow more capacious than the mother country – more relaxed, more outdoorsy, more classless.
Richer, too. There is a reason that the movement of population is overwhelmingly from the UK to its former colonies rather than the other way around. Someone who moves from Bristol to Brisbane, doing the same job with the same qualifications, can reasonably expect a bigger house, a shorter commute, and a lot more sunshine.
Why are the former Dominions richer? OK, that may seem an easy question. They are richer because they have pursued policies that always serve to make nations richer: limited government, a competitive regulatory framework, free trade.
In 2021, the last year for which full figures are available, gross debt, as a percentage of GDP, was 34.6 per cent in Australia, 31.6 per cent in Canada and 14.5 per cent in New Zealand. In the UK, it was 84.3 per cent.
Britain taxes more, spends more, and borrows more than its daughter nations. Unsurprisingly, this gives rise to a relatively lower standard of living.
The bigger question is why the younger nations have pursued relatively successful free-market policies. All three of them, after all, are currently governed by left-of-centre parties: Labor in Australia, Labour in New Zealand, and the Liberals in Canada.
Yet all three are pursuing economic policies which, though far from perfect, are in many ways to the Right of those being pursued in Britain, now in its thirteenth year of Conservative government. Why is the political centre of gravity so much further Left here than in our kindred nations?
I am writing these words in Melbourne, having spent a large chunk of the last three weeks in Vancouver and Sydney, and the question has been nagging away at me.
There is never a single answer to these things, and lots of factors are involved. The absence of a hereditary aristocracy in the New World made for more social mobility, as did the sheer abundance of land. I suspect that Britain’s greater exposure to the Second World War, its more total mobilisation, was also part of the picture. The dial never quite returned to where it had been before 1940.
But there is one factor that I think is especially underestimated, and that is immigration. The settler colonies attracted disproportionately enterprising people, first as a function of geography, then as deliberate policy.
To leave your friends and family for a new land, even in an age of cheap flights and satellite TV, requires unusual optimism. Imagine what it must have required when sailing to Canada could take four weeks, and sailing to Australia could take four months.
The people prepared to make such journeys were, almost by definition, more spirited than average. Even the prisoners transported to eighteenth-century Australia proved innovative and industrious once the idea of supporting the colony with state-run farms was replaced by grants of private land upon completion of sentence. They turned out to be entrepreneurs as well as, so to speak, preneurs.
The optimism bias continued, from the gold rushes and to the age of jet travel. It went up a few notches when the settler colonies decided to open their doors to significant migration from Asia, introducing points systems to determine who was most qualified.
In all three countries, plenty of people vaguely opine that the numbers are too high, but none of the main parties proposes significant cuts. Why? Because all three countries control their borders. Their electorates go along with relatively high levels of legal migration because they can see that illegal immigration is nigh on impossible.
As John Howard put it in 2001: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” a policy that rendered even more pithily by his successor, Tony Abbott, as, “Stop the boats”.
How extraordinary that Tory Britain has not been able to replicate the policy cheerfully maintained by Labor Australia. Yes, I appreciate that there are differences, from being bound by various treaties and charters to not having international seas beyond our territorial waters.
But these obstacles could be overcome with sufficient will. The question is whether we are prepared to do distasteful things, such as send families to Rwanda. If we’re not, we might as well drop the pretence that we can control our frontiers.
Immigration into the UK has, from the start, been haphazard. Instead of aiming to attract the best and brightest through a points-based system, we recruited en masse, paid people’s fares, and put them to work for the state. Then we started admitting people simply because they had managed to stay long enough to acquire the right to remain – a policy that, instead of encouraging gratitude and patriotism, taught contempt for the system.
We tend to take it for granted that immigrants are likely to vote for parties of the left. But might this be the result of how they arrived here? Or, to turn it around, if we made more of an effort to recruit the most talented and energetic settlers, and to close off all other routes, might not the immigrant population be likelier, as in the Dominions, to support free-market policies?
One thing is certain. If the Conservatives can’t prevail over the forces ranged against them on deportations – radical lawyers, human rights activists, BBC presenters, European judges, embittered peers – they will be pulverised at the polls. As Suella Braverman says, our party’s credibility is on the line.
But we should look at this as far more than fixing a leak. If we get it right, we can be much more ambitious about legal immigration, making Britain both richer and more enterprising. There, surely, is a prize worth pursuing.