Here we go again. Ed Miliband gave another speech about immigration this morning proving yet again that this is a subject about which no-one is ever permitted to talk.
Any time a Labour politicians talks about immigration and the party’s record in government I am reminded of Evelyn Waugh’s acid observation on hearing the news that Randolph Churchill had successfully endured an operation to remove a benign tumour. This, Waugh wrote in his diary, represented “A typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.” Comparably, it seems a typical triumph of modern politics that Labour should disown one of the more reputable parts of its record in office.
As Jonathan Portes points out in the Independent, there was ample political — as well as economic — justification for opening Britain to workers from eastern european countries, freshly minted as members of the EU.
Now, alas, it is disowned by a Labour party spooked by tabloid hysteria and forever scurrying to keep up with the perceived concerns of “ordinary working people”. Never mind that study after study of this “migration” (a term, incidentally, that suggests Poles and Czechs are human wildebeest) has shown little real impact on wages earned by “British” workers. (They also tend to make less, not more, use of public services than do the natives.)
I suppose one should not be surprised that Miliband’s speech today was utterly incoherent and stuffed with guff. One the one hand ‘immigration has benefits, economically, culturally and socially’ but on the other it is vital to ‘address’ people’s ‘concerns’ about immigration. Naturally that does not mean making any kind of case for immigration as something that brings benefits; rather it means ‘reassuring’ people that the Labour party is ‘serious’ about restricting immigration.
It is a dispiriting analysis that, whether it means to or not, accepts the premise that many Britons aren’t capable of competing with immigrants regardless of whether those job-seeking foreigners are big-skilled or small-skilled. Miliband’s answer to this was drearily predictable: many sectors of the British economy have ‘not been subject to sufficient rules and regulations.’
For that matter, as Brother Blackburn implies, it seems extraordinary that the leader of the opposition could make what was billed (erroneously of course) as a “major speech” on immigration and make no mention whatsoever of welfare reform. (Nor did Miliband mention education though this — or rather the lack of it — is an obvious part of the overall picture.)
According to Miliband, ‘The public feel too often politicians only speak about the issue to close the conversation down.’ Is this really so? Restrictionists hear politicians talking about immigration but failing to close the border; libertarian-minded voters hear politicians doing their best not to seem to pander to restrictionists while actually pandering to baser parts of the electorate. At no point does anyone hear politicians making an unapologetic case for immigration as a kind of life-enhancing national blood transfusion.
That would take political courage and courage is generally something to avoid in politics since it is a leading cause of political death. Nevertheless it would be pleasant if, just for once, our leaders made a proper case for immigration.
It would be unfair to pick on Miliband alone, however. Why only this week David Cameron was (wittily!) suggesting Britain was open to any wealthy Frenchman who cares to flee his new government’s higher taxes even as his government does all it can — or wants to be seen doing all it can — to make it more difficult for other foreigners to come and study or work in this country.
Here again we spy the contradiction at the heart of most immigration-talk. Cameron and even Miliband each recognise that an island, trading nation like Britain must be open to the world but recoil from immigration policies that confirm or meet that identity.
In general, immigration is a sign of national well-being not a threat to the native-born. Pity the country that has no immigration “problem”. If British workers really aren’t up to competing with foreigners arriving on these shores then politicians should address the reasons for that failure rather than suggest, however incoherently, that all will be well if only we can stem the tide of outsiders daring to come to the United Kingdom in search of liberty and prosperity.