Posts Tagged 'emigration'

The Far Country: The case for (and against) emigration.

With its generic title and un-grabby premise – English girl goes to Australia, falls in love – I doubt anyone besides Nevil Shute completists is reading his 1952 novel The Far Country these days. I enjoyed it, but I concede that it’s a tad lacking in dramatic incident. When in the 1980s it was made into an Australian TV miniseries – which I haven’t seen – the writers seem to have thought it necessary to crank up the melodrama by adding controversy over the Czech love interest’s wartime service as a doctor with the German army.

In the book, no-one is the least bit bothered about this. The English girl’s Aussie relatives express some misgivings about her gadding about with a dark-complexioned older man, but only because they’re afraid her folks back home will be prejudiced against foreigners. It’s strange. In the immediate aftermath of the war, when ordinary Brits and Aussies would have had ample justification for hating their former foes, it didn’t occur to Shute that his hero would be affected by such resentment. Thirty-odd years later, the creators of the miniseries assumed that the doctor’s Nazi guilt needed to be addressed.

Like In the Wet, Shute’s epic of electoral reform from the following year, The Far Country contrasts the war-exhausted, ration-stinted Old World with the optimism and expansiveness of the Antipodes. The heroine’s destitute grandmother receives £500 from a well-off niece in Australia, but it arrives too late to save the old lady from the effects of her meagre diet. On her deathbed she conveys the money to her granddaughter, Jennifer, with the stipulation that she should use it to emigrate from dreary, declining Britain.

Jennifer is inclined to ignore her grandmother’s directive and return the money to its sender. A few days later, at the government office where she’s employed as a typist, someone mentions a nephew who is prospering in Canada. A socialist co-worker gripes about the consequences of permitting such emigration:

“It’s not right, the way these young chaps go abroad,” said Sanders. “If it goes on, the Government will have to put a stop to it.”

I wasn’t sure about this character. Even in idle break-room chit-chat, would an idealistic leftist of the early 1950s have entertained the idea of restricting emigration? Or was this just Shute venting his ire at socialist control-freakery? [1]

But it wasn’t only those on the left who were concerned at the loss of British manpower. From an article by Murray Watson, co-author of a book on English immigrants to Canada: [2]

In the years after the war more than 2 million people emigrated from the United Kingdom. Such was the scale of population loss that wartime leader Winston Churchill feared those leaving would hamper post-war recovery. He issued a patriotic appeal on the BBC:

“I say to those that wish to leave our country, ‘Stay here and fight it out.’ If we work together with brains and courage, as we did in days not long ago, we can make our country fit for all our people. Do not desert the old land.”

Shute’s break-room socialist gives Churchill’s appeal an internationalist twist:

“[W]hat this country has tried to do, and what it’s doing, is to plan a new form of government and put it into practice, a new form of democracy where everyone will get a square deal. When we’ve shown it can be done, the world will copy it, all right. You see. But it can’t be worked out if people are allowed to run away to other countries. It’s their job to stay here and get this one right.” [3]

A level-headed accountant named Morrison joins the debate, asking Jennifer to consider the cost of her upbringing:

“For eighteen years somebody in this country fed you and clothed you and educated you before you made any money, before you started earning. Say you cost an average two quid a week for that eighteen years. You’ve cost England close on two thousand pounds to produce.”

Somebody said, “Like a machine tool.”

“That’s right,” the accountant said, “a human dictaphone and typewriter combined, all electronic and maintains itself and does its own repairs, that’s cost two thousand quid. Suppose you go off to Canada. You’re an asset worth two thousand quid that England gives to Canada as a free gift. If a hundred thousand like you were to go each year, it would be like England giving Canada a subsidy of two million pounds a year. It’s got to be thought about, this emigration. We can’t afford to go chucking money away like that.”

She said, puzzled, “It’s not really like that, is it?”

“It is and all,” said Morrison. “That’s what built up the United States. Half a million emigrants a year went from Central Europe to America for fifty years or so. Say they were worth a thousand quid apiece. Right – that was a subsidy from Central Europe to America of five hundred million quid a year, and it went on for fifty years or so. Human bulldozers.”

He leaned forward on the table. “Believe it or not,” he said, “Central Europe got very poor and the U.S.A. got very rich.”

Jennifer is so annoyed by the whole discussion that she decides to take her grandmother’s advice after all. She books passage for Australia.

Is it true that the Old World is poorer for the loss of generations of human capital to Australia, Canada, and the United States? Unsurprisingly, things were tight just after the war, when most of Europe’s savings had just been spent on obliterating much of Europe’s infrastructure. But by the 1970s or thereabouts, the continent – at least the half of it that wasn’t stuck under Communist rule – had rebuilt, living standards had rebounded, and the emigration slowed to a trickle.

Would Europe have recovered more quickly if emigrants like Shute’s hero and heroine had remained, their “brains and courage” helping to increase productivity? Or did their departure contribute to the rising standard of living, bleeding off surplus population and thus helping to keep the cost of housing low and wages high?

In his podcast last year, John Derbyshire scoffed at Nancy Pelosi’s contention that a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border was “immoral”. Pointing to news reports indicating that “There are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago than in Ethiopia” and that “Half of Romania’s doctors left the country between 2009 and 2015”, he wondered:

Don’t those people’s home countries need their bright, educated, accomplished citizens way more than we do? Could someone please ask moralist-in-chief Nancy Pelosi about this?

I doubt that Derbyshire, a cantankerous immigration foe, really worries that the United States is enriching itself at the developing world’s expense. He would probably argue that migration is a lose-lose proposition: it weakens the source countries by robbing them of their smartest and most ambitious citizens, and weakens the destination countries by afflicting them with overcrowding, linguistic confusion, and interethnic squabbling.

One could also argue that migration is win-win: that teeming poor countries benefit by sending abroad workers who are unlikely to find an outlet for their talents at home, and that rich countries benefit by the infusion of energetic, ambitious young people. This would presumably be Nancy Pelosi’s view.

My own view is somewhere in between. Some people – habitual criminals, mental defectives, and unemployables – are a drain on whichever country they live in. If a poor country can guilt some rich country into taking these people off its hands, why not? For the rich country, it might be worthwhile to take in ninety-nine slackers and thugs on the chance of nabbing a single undiscovered genius whose ideas will generate enough wealth to maintain all the others. But if you can figure out how to get the one genius without taking the other ninety-nine, why not try that instead?

But why does the west feel it necessary to import Ethiopian and Romanian doctors at all? Medicine is a high-paying, high-prestige career, yet for some reason we can’t turn out enough young doctors to meet demand. Are salaries too low? Working conditions too gruelling? Is the high cost of education putting young people off? It can’t be the last: more people are getting advanced degrees than ever before. Wouldn’t it be less trouble to Tiger Mother an extra two or three percent of those high-achievers into med school than to relocate the finest young minds of Addis Ababa and Bucharest halfway around the world to tend our aging, flabby selves?

As it happens, Romanian doctors come up in The Far Country. The Czech hero, Zlinter, is unable to practice medicine in Australia as his credentials aren’t recognized. He can’t afford the three years of additional schooling he’d need to re-qualify, and as he’s happy enough doing manual labour, he’s resigned himself to never being a doctor again. Jennifer protests:

“But what an idiotic regulation!” the girl said.

He looked at her, smiling at her indignation for him. “It is not so idiotic,” he said. “There must be some rule. The doctors from some countries are ver’ bad. I would not like you to be treated by a Roumanian doctor, or a doctor from Albania.”

Working as a lumberman deep in the bush, Zlinter steps up to perform an emergency operation when two of his co-workers are injured in a gruesome accident. This incident attracts the attention of the authorities, who investigate the foreigner for practicing medicine without a licence. His friends and colleagues, resenting this intrusion by big-city bureaucrats, come to the Czech’s defence, but an Australian doctor named Jennings puts the case for caution:

“You’ve got to have a rule,” Jennings said. “Most of these D.P. doctors are crook doctors, oh, my word. You’d be the first to scream if some of them got loose on your family. …Take this Zlinter, for example. He seems to be a careful sort of chap, and since he qualified he’s had a very wide experience of surgery in front-line conditions with the German army. You’ve seen him at his best. He certainly knows a lot about these sort of accidents. But that’s not general practice. Ninety per cent of the general practitioner’s job is trying to decide if an old lady’s pain is heart trouble or wind, or whether a kiddy’s got scarlet fever or a sore throat. Zlinter may be useless at that sort of thing – probably is.”

He paused. “I don’t want you to think I’m against Zlinter,” he said. “I think he’s a good man. If he was qualified I’d like to see him practice in this district and take some of the work off me. But not before he’s been checked over at the hospital and been passed out as competent.”

Seems sensible enough. But I suspect no modern doctor would speak so forthrightly. Shute was writing in the unenlightened age before the benefits of diversity had been revealed to our governing class. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put it:

[O]ur diversity isn’t a challenge to be overcome or a difficulty to be tolerated. Rather, it’s a tremendous source of strength. … Canada has succeeded – culturally, politically, economically – because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

If such assertions are meant to be taken literally, it follows that even if your Romanian or Albanian doctor turns out to be a bit “crook” (by which Dr. Jennings meant incompetent, not dishonest), the workforce-enriching effects of added diversity should more than compensate for any niggling increase in miscommunication, misdiagnosis, and malpractice.

As for Romania and Albania, today’s wisdom would tell them that instead of vainly attempting to coax their disillusioned professionals into remaining, they should look to even poorer countries – say, Mali or Mozambique – for doctors willing to bring to Eastern Europe the tremendous strength of their diversity. Meanwhile, Australia and Canada will go on sending their idealistic young doctors to do aid work in Mali and Mozambique, completing the cycle.

M.

1. Although Britons were never prevented from transporting their expensively-nurtured selves abroad, the Exchange Controls Act limited how much of their wealth they could take with them. At the time Shute was writing, emigrants to the United States and Canada could bring along only £1000; the remainder of their fortune had to be invested with an “authorised depositary” in the U.K. Even vacationers could take just £25 a year across the border. These rules wouldn’t have impacted Jennifer’s Australia trip, as they didn’t apply to the countries in the “sterling area” that used the pound as a reserve currency. (See the Bank of England’s “The U.K. Exhange Control: A Short History”.)

2. Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson.

3. I can find no evidence that the U.K. has ever entertained the idea of restricting emigration. But earlier this year the Guardian reported the results of a European Council on Foreign Relations poll showing that majorities in Spain, Greece, and Italy – and near-majorities in Poland and Hungary – would support their citizens being “prevented from leaving the country for long periods of time”.

I’ve written about, let’s see…four of Nevil Shute’s books now. John Derbyshire I last mentioned in an essay on the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack. Justin Trudeau came up just a few weeks ago, when I compared him to a “second-rate game show host”.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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