Thursday 14 April 2011

Has David Cameron 'cut through the extremes' on immigration?

Prime Minister David Cameron will give a major speech about immigration this morning. It has been heavily briefed to the media as a tough intervention, so is splashed in that fashion on the Telegraph (Cameron: immigration threatens our way of life) Daily Mail (Mass migration has divided our society and Guardian (Immigrants should speak English) front-pages, and reported in the Independent (PM talks tough) too.

The Guardian has the full text of the speech in advance.

As with the Prime Minister's speech on multiculturalism, which sparked a polarised debate about integration, the rather aggressive briefing of the immigration speech gives a somewhat exaggerated sense of a speech more nuanced than the headlines gathered on its behalf.

The Downing Street press team will no doubt know what they were doing, and the type of coverage that they were aiming to achieve, so there may be a view that there are short-term political benefits to this - the Telegraph reports says the timing of the speech is influenced by wanting a popular theme for the local elections, and the well informed Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome also emphasises tensions with the Tory grassroots and right-wing presss seeing this as an "attempt to steady a panicking ship with a tough speech on immigration" as the local campaigning begins, also tweeting:

Increasingly nervous about core Tory vote, Cameron makes immigration speech

Those party political motivations may then make more difficult what the Prime Minister says he wants in his speech, and which many people with different views on the content of immigration policy would hope should be possible.

Now, immigration is a hugely emotive subject … and it's a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments. We've all heard them. The assertion that mass immigration is an unalloyed good and that controlling it is economic madness … the view that Britain is a soft touch and immigrants are out to take whatever they can get. I believe the role of politicians is to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.

There is a not much in the way of new policy in the speech. Rather, there is a repetition of Cameron's long-standing soundbite about wanting immigration in the tens of thousands not the hundreds of thousands (where an economic downturn will do some of the work), and so a defence of the Coalition's immigration cap against its critics (without identifying some of these as Ministerial colleagues). The idea of the cap is broadly popular with the public, but somewhat more contentious within government, and with businesses and universities, once the question moves from pledge to workable policy. The punchiest critique to date of the policy came from Cameron's election speechwriter, the journalist Ian Birrell, capturing that there are significant debates within as well as between all of the parties on immigration.

Cameron says he wants "good immigration, not mass immigration" though the media briefing has focused heavily on this passage.

Mr Cameron will say: "When there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods, perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate, that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods. "This has been the experience for many people in our country and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.

Less noticed, Cameron talks about Britain "benefitting immeasurably" from immigration (though needing a lot less of it, in his view).

Our country has benefitted immeasurably from immigration. Go into any hospital and you'll find people from Uganda, India and Pakistan who are caring for our sick and vulnerable. Go into schools and universities and you'll find teachers from all over the world, inspiring our young people. Go to almost any high street in the country and you'll find entrepreneurs from overseas who are not just adding to the local economy but playing a part in local life. Charities, financial services, fashion, food, music – all these sectors are what they are because of immigration. So yes, immigrants make a huge contribution to Britain. We recognise that – and we welcome it.

The idea that immigration causes public concern and creates local pressures is of course a valid one. That was captured in the recent Searchlight report and polling data, though it ought to be possible to respond with constructive optimism which seeks to avoid making social pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An important test of political leadership across political parties is whether political interventions prove more effective at addressing concerns and fears than at stoking them. So the Prime Minister will be expected to show that he is addressing the causes of discomfort and disjointedness. The speech suggests perhaps rather too much of an over-emphasis on numbers at the border over integration.

I would agree that a shared language is a vital passport to economic and civic inclusion and participation. If this is a very important priority for both economic participation - cutting welfare bills and increasing tax revenues - and good social relations, it would be as well to try to protect English teaching from deep cuts, for example.

There are a couple of extremely stale but prominent perennials in the advance briefing of the speech, which seem more likely to divert the immigration debate into well-worn cul-de-sacs than to open up the frank and open public conversation about immigration which the Prime Minister says he wants to promote and lead.

Let's talk more openly about immigration is a good message- but it would be as well to get on to the contentful discussion rather than to be stuck in a silly discussion about whether or not it is a legitimate subject of public and political debate.

But, as the Telegraph puts it:

In the speech to party members in Hampshire, the Prime Minister will attack Labour for claiming it was racist to talk about immigration, saying it is "untruthful and unfair" not to speak about the issue, however uncomfortable.

This hoary old myth doesn't get us very far. The idea that debate about immigration has been silenced and closed down in Britain is a pervasive myth.

But, as a matter of fact, it can be easily disproved if one goes and looks at what politicians said and did throughout the period, or reviewing the endless noisy public debates about immigration, and volumes of legislation on immigration (broadly in a restrictive direction) under almost every post-war government, whether Conservative or Labour. I published a Comment is Free post 'The Enoch Myth in 2008, offering chapter and verse which proves beyond any reasonable doubt just how noisy these decades of supposed silenced debate always were. (Cameron, perhaps prey to the myth, says in his speech "I remember when immigration wasn't a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again". I wonder if he could cite any five or ten year post-war period which he has in mind when he claims that?).

It is interesting to reflect on the drivers of the sense of political disconnection which means that this is widely believed, but that is a very different thing from the myth being true.

Cameron directly echoes Michael Howard's election posters in 2005, which proved somewhat less effective than the Conservatives hoped at the time, and which had the rather odd aim of starting a debate about immigration which will not be distracted by allegations of racism by starting a debate about racism and being silenced, rather more than to start a frank and rational public debate about immigration itself.

It was rather odd to claim that the other major party was treating all discussion of immigration as verboten - because I clearly recall that Labour had election posters in 2005 which proclaimed in bold, primary colours "Your Country's Border's Safe", and it would be rewrite history rather spectacularly to claim that Labour home secretaries such as Jack Straw or David Blunkett did not speak about immigration. (Despite this, the claim has often been implicit in Labour's post-election debates, which sometmes strike me as taking place as if we all had the memories of goldfish, leading to proposals to 'break' with the party's recent approach and move on by saying all of the same things again, so as to als sound 'tough').


On forced marriage, the Prime Minister will say:

"I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue – it is wrong, full stop, and we've got to stamp it out."

He's quite right about that. Its a good idea to look at every route which might be effective to stamp it out, and the government would of course expect cross-party support in doing that. But, again, I do wonder whether he can identity any government minister or MP in any party who has argued it is a culturally relative issue.

Of course, Cameron is echoing the comments of his predecessors, to express a principle which is not contentious in British politics. Here's Tony Blair in 2006.

We stand emphatically at all times for equality of respect and treatment for all citizens. Sometimes the cultural practice of one group contradicts this . . . A good example is forced marriage. There can be no defence of forced marriage on cultural or any other grounds.”

As Cameron himself said in 2008, it is "frankly unacceptable". Right then too, though the slight element of self-congratulation in such brave frankness is really somewhat superfluous.

The Home Office and Foreign office created a Forced Marriage Unit in 2005. The Prime Minister would surely know that Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act was passed in 2007, as the government supported legislation put forward as a private members' bill by Lord Lester. There is an ongoing debate about whether further moves in the criminal law would be effective, or were unnecessary given the range of existing laws under which forced marriages can be prosecuted.

The issue is certainly not whether the practice is legitimate, on the grounds of cultural relativism - and I am not sure what purpose is served by rhetorically claiming that it is.


Cameron's government ought to act on the points made in a new report from Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford about the steps that would need to be taken on data and statistics to make an evidence-based debate more possible.

The speech seemed to me to be weakest - and rather rhetorical - on illegal immigration, particularly in having nothing at all to say in acknowleding any issues about those who have been here in the UK for sometime.

So Cameron is against illegal immigraton, and says he can take "decisive action" and stop it. He highlights enforcement action - including 260 removals. Meanwhile, Downing Street spends a good deal of time and energy trying to persuade Boris Johnson not to repeat his obviously correct point that there is no prospect of removal of what he estimated were 400,000 illegal immigrants in London and 700,000 nationwide, so that it may therefore be important to look at paths towards regularisation and citizenship. Cameron was very clear that the Liberal Democrats could not bring this argument into the Coalition negotiations. His government's policy is effectively not to have a policy - but there are certainly impacts in terms of exploitation and economic insecurity for both immigrants and British workers of ignoring the issue.

Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute on the libertarian right reviewed some of the evidence on economic benefits in a blog post yesterday, and rightly points out that:

Empirical evidence, which (in the UK) suggests that immigrants have a higher labour force participation rate than the indigenous population and a lower per capita utilization of public services. A 2007 Home Office report found that immigrants’ net contribution – that is, taxes paid minus the cost of services used – is equivalent to one percent off the basic tax rate. Immigrants are subsidizing indigenous welfare users.

Social democrats will naturally also want to talk about how the gains and pressures of immigration are distributed, but honest advocates of restricting immigration need to take that point head on.

For example, David Goodhart, editor-of-large of Prospect and an increasingly vocal advocate of reduced immigration has been willing to do that, writing last month in the Financial Times in favour of the immigration cap, but being willing to frankly accept that it does have some economic costs, which he believes are manageable (and somewhat overstated) and so are a "price worth paying"

The education sector is less happy. Non-EU students are vital for them, at more than 300,000 a year. But around half of that is sub-degree courses, which the government thinks it can cut relatively painlessly by 80,000 over four years. Clearly there will be costs in reducing our overdependence on immigrants, especially in years three and four after the easier cuts are made. But if the reductions are made sensibly, as they have been so far, and employers respond with more training, as the government hopes, this will be a small economic price worth paying for a broader political good.

(Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, retorted in a letter that Goodhart's defence of the cap - "the target is for net immigration. So if more Britons retire to Spain, more space will be created for Canadian nanotechnologists" - revealed its illogicality. ("if fewer Britons retire to Spain, there will be less space for Canadian nanotechnologists").

Cameron by contrast with Goodhart has a more Panglossian view, and so implausibly declares that he can "completely reject the idea that our new immigration rules will damage our economy" or Britain's universities, despite concerns within government as well as outside it that the cap will do both, a case which advocates of the policy are willing to concede at least in part.

It is a legitimate political decision as to how to respond in policy terms to public concern about immigration.

The Prime Minister, having decided that what he calls the "immeasurable benefits" of immigration have gone much too far - is unlikely to be right that this is something that can be done cost-free.

1 comment:

David Lindsay said...

There would have been none of this if the trade union closed shop had never been abolished. Requiring the production of a union card is no different from requiring the production of a British passport or a work permit. The closed shop was as important for that as it was for giving the Tory forty-five per cent of the industrial working-class a moderating influence in the selection of Labour candidates for the safe Labour seats in which they lived.

New Labour's repudiation of the trade union movement was very much like its repudiation of Clause IV. That Clause did not mention nationalisation, although it certainly allowed for it; it had been framed so that people who already had nationalisation in mind could read that presupposition into it, even though no one could have read that presupposition out of it. But Tony Blair and his fan club thought that it was about nothing else.

So, in repudiating it, they repudiated public ownership in order to repudiate everything that public ownership delivered and safeguarded, notably national sovereignty, the Union, and the economic basis of paternal authority. Likewise, in repudiating trade unionism, they repudiated controlled immigration and the moderating influence of the wider electorate in the affairs of the Labour Party. Mercifully, that last, at least, reasserted itself in the victory of Ed Miliband over the Blairite candidate.