How the British became addicted to immigration
With the issue no longer about race but numbers, kicking this addiction will be hard
Immigration is one of those issues that politicians must think they can never get right – not least because the numbers are so confusing. Take what happened last week.
On Thursday it was announced that, instead of falling as the coalition government had promised, net migration rose last year by 20 per cent. Labour, predictably, labelled this a personal set-back for David Cameron, even though he only took office in May 2010.
Others pointed out that net migration is merely the balance between those leaving and arriving in the country, and immigration last year was, in fact, roughly the same as in 2009. The only reason the net figure went up was that the number leaving the country went down, and no government has any control over that.
If you can follow this, you're already halfway to being an expert. But what was interesting about this arcane spat was that it was all about numbers, and not at all about race - as it might well have been in the past.
For this, ironically, we can thank Tony Blair's great expansion of immigration in the late 1990s. Whether Labour fully understood what it was doing when it effectively took the chocks off migration after 1997 is hotly debated, but the effect was dramatic.
Between 1996 and 2010, due almost entirely to immigration, Britain's population rose by some four million, almost double the amount it grew in the previous 25 years. And whereas earlier waves of migration had been largely Asian and concentrated in a few places, this one, with hundreds of thousands of east Europeans in the vanguard, spread all over the country.
The result, as Home Office minister Damian Green said last week, was that under Labour Britain became addicted to immigration. Because of the Blair migration boom, employers and higher education, among others, came to depend on foreign workers and students, just as many middle-class families came to rely on Romanian cleaners and Polish plumbers.
Unlike most addictions, however, with this one some people enjoy the benefits, while others pay the price. As long as you live in a well-off area, the pressure of extra numbers on services like schools and surgeries probably is not an issue. Further down the income scale, in less well-off areas, it certainly is an issue, especially as the immigrants are often doing jobs that were previously taken by low skilled British people.
On the face of it, the debate over net immigration can seem rather abstract; no one, after all, has ever met a net immigrant. But it matters because numbers matter, especially in a crowded country with a weak economy. If immigration were to be significantly cut, the middle classes and some important vested interest would lose out. But the low paid and unskilled might well gain.
Under Blair, the pendulum swung sharply in favour of the pro-immigration lobby. Now it is swinging the other way, or at least it will do if the coalition's measures to reduce immigration bear fruit. The million dollar, or rather million person, question is will they?
Despite last week's announcement, some things are going the government's way. It has managed to reduce the number of non-EU workers arriving to the lowest for six years and it will manage to reduce the number of bogus students.
It is also likely that the weak economy will reduce immigration, although this will not be something ministers will wish to trumpet. It is quite possible, too, that emigration will increase which would help the net balance.
But against these, when it comes to migration there are lots of things the government cannot control. It has virtually no influence over the movement of EU citizens, the ebb and flow of whom also has a crucial impact on the overall figure.
And even when it does have power to act, it often faces ferocious opposition. Employers are strongly against cutting the number of non-EU citizens coming here to work. Universities are very worried about any attempt to cut overseas students. Family settlement is the next target in the Home Office's sights, and already the human rights lobby is gearing up to resist any move to reduce this as well.
When he took office David Cameron pledged, perhaps rashly, to cut net migration to the tens of thousands a year. Last year it came in at 239,000, so there is clearly some way to go. As Damian Green said, we have allowed ourselves to become addicted to immigration, and kicking any addiction is always harder than the addict thinks it is going to be. ·
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