The [British] North ‘Brain-drain’ and the unsaid

Notes on the difference in British news discourse between economic migrants: domestically, its a ‘brain drain’ narrative, whereas ‘foreign’ economic migrants/refuges are a threat (or potential).

A recent(?) British news narrative describes a ‘brain drain’ of the North of England, where apparently 75,500 more graduates have immigrated to London and south-east cities than the other way around, over the past 10 years. (i.e. about 1% of national graduates). This piece of information sits well with the well-known and growing economic gaps between London (+surrounding+South generally) from the rest of Britain, particularly the North. The said trend amongst the said group clearly responds to  better short-term specialised-employment prospects (as well as social and cultural opportunities, and despite lower chances of owning a home, and having less living space).

This discourse about the graduates’ immigration explains their flee as part of a supposedly national problem (I’ll challenge this frame shortly), and it also takes for granted that society is basically a market: graduates are reduced to their production value (new ‘highly qualified workers’), and the communities are depicted with terms of financial opportunities (or lack thereof). The social is the economic, also in requiring actions that treat this problem as a problem of jobs/industry (e.g. by improving GVA).

Further, The Guardian also published yesterday two first-hand accounts of young Northerners who moved to London after their graduation. The two accounts display the immigration as an apolitical experience, highlighting meaningless familiar (if not cliché) differences in accents, city size, costs, and property popular truisms, between London and the north. Furthering their apoliticality, the two stories are ‘balanced'(?) by each other, as one has later returned to the North, weakening the proof of an immigration trend, and what it means. Aimed, perhaps, at showing complexity and/or evoke readership’s empathy with richer personal accounts of internal immigration, in effect, these accounts individualise a social phenomenon, and do not politicise but depoliticise the immigration.

What I’d like to note here, however, is the difference being constituted through unsaid priorities between the two narratives of economic immigration. One is about British internal economic migrants, and it is explored through their financial struggle. The other is allegedly a separate phenomenon of other (namely inter-national) economic migrants/refuges, who flee much less privileged conditions, being forced to undergo an immigration that is manifold more difficult and undesirable – in order to pursue a prospect of avoiding poverty, or worse.

Global (economic) immigration is almost unmentioned in this narrative, peeking only very briefly in one of the items, by mentioning that ‘foreign workers’ now  ‘fill the gap’ of those who left the North. This mentioning resonates a familiar narrative of ‘foreigners taking our jobs,’ thus being associated indirectly as ‘another’ undesirable effect of the North brain drain

In sum, we are told of two separate  economic immigrations: one internal and one external. The former is a problem of brain drain, and is ‘our’ problem, whereas, in the latter, immigrants are a threat (or an opportunity, if they’re lucky). There is no mentioning of similarity – and all the more, continuation – between the two groups of immigrants. Conceiving, for example, the ‘brain-drain’ caused to the global communities left behind’ economic-refugees would be ‘politically charged,’ and consequently voided. Either it would be read as highlighting the migrants’ potency, thus suggesting that they are a desirable (economic!) asset to their new places of residence, or, conversely, it would be read as a xenophobic insinuation, highlighting yet ‘another’ damage of this undesirable immigration, manifesting an extension of the interested desire that ‘they’ ‘stay’ ‘there.’ (Can you think of Londoners saying that to/about Northerners!?)

But, in fact, not only that the two groups have a lot in common, they are a continuation of the same crisis. As I argued before, reducing immigration depends on reducing the underlying victimhood of those escaping the short end of economic gaps between communities under the current form of the Capitalist system. As long as some live relatively comfortable, while others struggle and have much less options, it is only to be expected that many will be forced to opt to sacrifice their existing communal and cultural ‘conveniences’ to have better, or indeed any, prospects.

So, why is it easier to imaging the struggle of the North/erners being forced to immigrate as ‘our’ problem, but not to see the same problem in global terms?


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