A while ago, I promised to write about my response to allegations by Andrew Neather that the government had covered up immigration. I got waylaid a bit, but in my Daily Telegraph column today I explain why I’m not convinced by it. To believe that mass immigration was a deliberate policy to screw up the Tories would imply that someone in power had a clue what was going on. No one did. It was a massive accident: the arrival of four million more people over 15 years. But here’s the thing: have the shops run out of food? Has M&S run out of underwear to sell? Has Ryanair started to ration flights? Has there been any rise in crime or anti-immigration sentiment? Have employers run out of vacancies? Not at all. The immigration levels have been amazing, but so has Britain’s ability to cope – and the economy’s ability to expand.
I can just feel the below-the-line comments getting warmed up: all very well for you, Nelson, living in a leafy Middlesex bubble with your immigrant wife and sick Eurovision obsession. Immigration is all very well for the comfortably-off if it means more plumbers and nannies to hire. But what about those in the northern parts of England who feel as if they already live in a foreign country, people who can’t get a GP appointment or a council house because this country just happens to have admitted the equivalent of five whole EU states? All very well for you to tell us that it makes Britain more diverse and interesting and increases your chances of buying sauerkraut and Aperol spritzers on a sunny evening. This love of globalisation is the new nationalism for you lot, isn’t it? But it adumbrates a new divide: the protected on one side, the unprotected on the other.
To which I say: yes, guilty. But, in my defence, at least I know I’m guilty. Ten years ago, I was an unapologetic advocate of mass immigration but a Labour MP, Jon Cruddas, changed my mind. He showed me around his Dagenham constituency, and introduced me to BNP voters to show they were not bigots – just people whose lives had been made far worse by what he called ‘demographic change’. And who speaks for them? The logical way to win elections, he said, was to target swing voters in swing seats – but the people losing from mass immigration were ignored. So they turned to the BNP. And, later, to Ukip (to Madame Le Pen in France, and to Trump in America). So people like me, who argue that immigration is a net benefit, need to recognise that there are losers, whose pain and problems are not negated by the benefits of immigration.
I’d also argue that the issue of Islamism is distinct from that of today’s mass immigration. In a great many cases, we’re talking about British-born people who turn to radical Islam, often to the shock of their parents. The failure of integration, and the phenomenon of places like Savile Town in Dewsbury, is not really connected with how many people we let in every year. Cameron could cut immigration by three-quarters and we’d still be no closer to solving the problem of jihadism.
But in my column today, I argue that – in a way – it matters less whether we think that immigration is a good or a bad thing. It looks as if Britain will vote to remain in the EU, after which I think we should abandon the immigration target (net immigration below 100,000) because we have no means of hitting it. Theresa May argues that even an unachievable target is useful because it exerts some downward pressure on immigration – although, as the below graph shows, not very successfully.
The graph also shows how recent this phenomenon is to Britain. It’s not, pace Neather, a Labour Party trick; similar trends can be seen in every European country. A wave of immigration hit around the millennium and hasn’t gone away. It has now evolved into a global trend of migration. Our shops and airlines expand because they’re run independently: you have lots of players, who respond quickly to demographic changes. Government doesn’t respond well, especially if it is deluding itself about an immigration target it’s not going to hit.
I can’t speak for other journalists, but the longer I’ve been in this job – and been given the chance to watch the main players at close range – the less I believe in Neather-style conspiracy theories. But cock-ups? This is the real story. Westminster is more The Thick Of It than All The President’s Men. The original ‘tens of thousands’ immigration pledge was from something Damian Green blurted out in an interview: it was made into policy to cover up the cock-up. When John Hutton was Work & Pensions Secretary, he told me that immigrants were just 2.5pc of the workforce: the real number was 12pc.
I’ll leave you with one last example. In the 2010 leaders’ debates, Nick Clegg challenged David Cameron to say whether he was ‘right or wrong that 80 per cent of people who come here come from the European Union’. Cleggie was wrong, laughably so: the real figure was 35 per cent – as anyone who had vaguely studied the subject would know. But worse, neither Cameron nor Gordon Brown were able to correct him. This exchange perfectly summed up the horrific situation: Britain’s immigration policy was being set by a Labour party that knew little, fighting rivals who knew less.
Government cannot plan, so it ought to make sure it runs a system that is as responsive to demographic changes as business has been. The near-certainty of more mass immigration is, to me, another reason to pursue health and education reform: we need a state that will be as flexible and ever-changing as our population has now become.