Was any one actually surprised by the splash on immigration in yesterday’s Daily Mail? Its poll (of 1,027 people by Harris/Daily Mail) suggests that nearly two thirds of people think that immigration since 2004 has not been good for British society; eight in ten think that 176,000 net immigration last year was too much; and nearly eight in ten think that the public has not been consulted adequately about the effect of immigration on the population. Actually given that the last question was framed thus: ‘Since 1997, immigration has added 2.5 million to the population. Has the public been adequately consulted about this change?’ it’s surprising that only 79 per cent agreed. Does anyone recall anything in the way of actual consultation on the subject between 1997 and 2010? Me neither. But then apart from Switzerland, where these things are put to the electorate in referendums – so not the British way! – there isn’t much of a mechanism to do it. Not, I grant you, that anyone tried.
The finding that the paper went big on, however, was the 82 per cent opposition to Bulgarians and Romanians being able to come and live and work here as a result of EU membership. Funnily enough, this is perhaps the part of the immigration picture that bothers me least. It doesn’t do to say so but the Romanians and Bulgarians to which most people such as David Blunkett (yep, he who said there was no obvious upper limit to migration) take exception are gypsies from those countries; quite a small minority and, as elsewhere in eastern and south-eastern Europe, at the bottom of every pile. I spoke to the Bulgarian ambassador this summer about migrants who weren’t in the Roma category, and he suggested that most of those in Britain do rather useful work in the City or nursing or picking strawberries as seasonal workers. In fact he seemed rather sad that, given Bulgaria’s ageing population, they should want to leave.
The point about Bulgarian and Romanian migrants isn’t, I think, really to do with them at all; they’re simply a useful opportunity for people to ventilate about immigration in general. And here, the important point to make is that the sheer size and scale of it is disguised by the Government’s duplicitous habit of discussing the numbers in terms of net migration: the Mail’s figure of 2.5 million added to the population since 1997 is the number of people who arrived during that time, less the number of Brits who left. In fact, as Migration Watch usefully remind us, the scale of gross immigration – foreign born individuals coming in, less foreign born individuals leaving – is much bigger. The figure to bear in mind is the one from the ONS which suggests that 3.8 million people came to England and Wales between 2001 and 2011. Crucially, only 30 per cent of them were from the EU – so not just Poles, then, thank you, Mr Straw. And if you consider that for that time, the estimates for illegal immigrants come to anything between half a million and a million, well, it all comes to quite a tidy figure.
The important thing, I think, is to require government to talk in terms of gross immigration, even if – especially if – it doesn’t want to. The premise for ministers appears to be that in terms of what you might call population footprint, it doesn’t really matter whether the footprint is that of Brits or Europeans or Tunisians. As Paul Collier, author of Exodus, the excellent study of immigration, pointed out on Radio 4’s Start the Week, in theory, if a million Britons leave and a million Chinese arrive, the result is zero net immigration, but the overall effect on the population is quite significant. I spoke to him about this when I interviewed him for The Spectator recently; for him what matters is people’s ability to assimilate in the community, which differs quite a lot, depending on their background. He was a bit reluctant to be drawn when I suggested that countries should be able to discriminate between would-be arrivals on that basis – so, treating Australians and Somalis differently on the grounds that Australians would blend in with the wallpaper, whereas Somalis, for various reasons, would do so less readily. But he did reiterate that net migration is a problem statistic; I’d go further myself, and say it’s a deceitful one.
Actually, in suggesting in all this that EU migration, including Bulgaria and Romania, is less of a problem than non-EU migration, I’m thinking of the countries that are in the EU right now. If Turkey were to join, as the Foreign Office officially wants, with its vibrant population of 70 million and growing, it would, I’d say, be quite another matter.