“We really are standing on the edge of the cliff.” That response to the latest immigration figures by Alp Mehmet, chairman of the normally restrained and clinical monitoring organisation Migration Watch, reflects the new record high of 606,000 immigrants in the past year.
The Government, which had engaged in expectation management by allowing media speculation that the figures would be even higher, appears relaxed about the situation. Provocatively so, in the eyes of many people. If the ONS had not recently changed its methodology for counting migrants and had retained the system used in previous years the figure would have been 749,000. By any yardstick, these are concerning statistics.
In fact, 1.2 million people entered the United Kingdom last year, offset by 557,000 departures. But it is misleading to assess the consequences of migration by the crude calculation of subtracting the emigrant total from the immigrant total. There is more to it than that. All immigrants represent a level of disruption, both personal and societal. To have population fluctuation on so large a scale incurs a degree of instability.
To gain perspective on these figures they should be put in context. Historically, from Windrush to the late 1990s, net migration was on a modest scale and largely cancelled out by emigration. Under Tony Blair, the government began to encourage mass migration on a scale not previously seen. The motivation for this was revealed in 2009 by Andrew Neather, former speech writer to Tony Blair: “It didn’t just happen: the deliberate policy of ministers… was to open up the UK to mass migration… the policy was intended – even if this wasn’t its main purpose – to rub the Right’s nose in diversity…”
Many people might think that a highly irresponsible way in which to conduct government. Around 70 per cent of the population increase between the 2001 and 2011 censuses was due to foreign-born immigration: 7.5 million people were born overseas, accounting for 11.9 per cent of the population. By a decade ago, net immigration in 2013 reached 212,000.
By that time, Britain was under Conservative government and Tory leaders were loud in their rhetoric, in response to public concern. David Cameron promised to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands”: by June 2016, at the end of his term in office, net immigration had risen to 311,000 year-on-year. At the end of Theresa May’s premiership in 2019 net migration was lower, at 227,000, not due to her “hostile environment” policy, but because EU citizens were returning home as the Brexit crisis heated up.
Boris Johnson was forthright in his pledge to curb immigration, as the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto promised: “There will be fewer lower-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down. And we will ensure that the British people are always in control.” As we now know, on Boris’s watch overall numbers “came down” from 227,000 to 606,000. Would anyone say the Conservatives have honoured their repeated manifesto commitments? Since the answer is evident, why would they expect anyone to believe them when they launch their election manifesto, with the usual razzmatazz, next year?
Now Rishi Sunak, faced with the highest immigration figures in British history, can do no more than say “It’s too high”, as if he were supervising the hanging of a painting in Number 10, while refusing to commit even to a reduction below 500,000. Does this seem like a sensible pre-election strategy?
Such behaviour appears downright kamikaze, unless there is a hidden explanation. Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, writing in the Telegraph, has proposed a highly credible interpretation. Under the headline “The Tories have a dirty secret: they don’t want to reduce immigration,” he writes: “Brexit has given Sunak complete control over the borders, to numbers as low as he likes. But he won’t use these powers, because the newcomers offer such help in politically sensitive areas.”
Tellingly he adds: “So to an extent seldom properly appreciated outside Whitehall, the whole government system is hardwired to favour mass immigration.” His argument is unanswerable: legal immigrants cannot keep arriving, year after year, in ever larger numbers, without the complicity of the government. The Tories want immigrants as cheap labour to appease business lobbies, based on the one great totem of increased GDP.
Unfortunately, it is a false totem and totally misleading. Once the public realises that, it will not be amused. The notion that immigrants, by producing an increase in GDP, grow the economy is a myth. As long ago as 2008 a House of Lords report criticised the government for using the impact of immigration on GDP in its analyses, rather than the much more accurate standard of GDP per capita. GDP will rise due to immigrant input, but so will the size of the population, making a crude GDP figure irrelevant.
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By growing the population they are diluting the value of GDP growth. On top of that, they are creating a housing crisis. The past year’s arrivals represent more than twice the government’s annual housing target of 300,000 new homes; and they join a years-old waiting list of aspiring homeowners that is a multiple of that figure. That is a recipe for disaster. Whatever happened to the Tory aspiration of a “home-owning democracy”? Do the Conservatives imagine that either the young people unable to buy a house and start a family or their angry parents will lend them their votes?
Add to that the pressure on public services, the impossibility of seeing a GP and the difficulty of accessing a school of choice and the claim that voter concern over immigration has waned, is “off the radar”, begins to look like a very rash assumption by a hubristic government.
Labour, which began the whole death spiral of mass immigration, is posing as tough on the issue; some of its imprecations on the subject are beginning to sound like the National Front, circa 1979, to the extent that one opinion poll recently suggested Labour was more trusted on immigration than the Tories. Of course, when it comes to power, Labour will revert to open-borders irresponsibility.
The underlying reality, as Fraser Nelson has discerned, is that the Tories rival Labour in their addiction to mass immigration. They are not sufficiently economically and socially literate to see that a quick fix – and a bogus one at that – on GDP figures counts for nothing, compared to the unrelenting transformation of this island, demographically and economically.
Britain has always been a safe and welcome home to immigrants – from the Italians at the turn of the last century to the Jewish people escaping persecution in the 1930s and those from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent in the 1950s and 1960s. The country has become richer in so many ways by their presence.
Yet the dilemma today is about the sheer scale of immigration: it’s become a numbers game at a time when the country’s resources are stretched to the limit. If the number of immigrants can be assimilated and managed – without huge burdens on public services – then may be the current levels can be accepted.
If not, then the British people, whom the last Conservative manifesto promised to ensure “are always in control”, are confronted by a familiar electoral dilemma: which party should they vote for when none of the major contenders will represent their interests on a fundamental issue of identity?
We have been here before. Reform UK has responded to the latest immigration statistics with the slogan “The only Net Zero Britain needs is Net Zero immigration”. As a political sound-bite it has the advantage of killing two birds with one stone. Nigel Farage claims that, had he been in charge, immigration would have been reduced to 50,000 a year. As Fraser Nelson has pointed out, post-Brexit, there is nothing to prevent a government cutting legal immigration as low as it wants.
Since politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, it is interesting to speculate whether the Reform party, perhaps joined by many of the participants at the recent National Conservativism conference, might create a platform around some kind of immigration moratorium and how that would play with voters, especially if Nigel Farage, who claims to detect a new political insurgency, were to return to active politics.
If it happened to play with disillusioned right-of-centre voters whom Rishi Sunak desperately needs at the next election, it could quickly deflate his insouciance on the immigration issue.
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