• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Playing immigration card a corrosive race to the bottom

The trouble with immigration is that everyone knows it is a bad thing.

It's obvious: you let all these foreigners come here and they take the jobs that should be going to our indolent young people. They drive down wages, clog up hospitals, leapfrog the council house waiting queue. And then they turn our cities into, well, places that aren't our own any more.

This is what the public thinks. Or, at any rate, this is what the UK Government thinks the British public thinks. So when government reports appear that don't quite conform to this thinking (such as the one the UK Government has somehow omitted to publish that shows immigrants don't take our jobs) it is, well, a little difficult. It strikes a discordant note in the symphony of Conservative news management.

The story the Tories want to tell is that immigration got out of control under Labour. Hundreds of thousands of Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian, Gypsies and all sorts came flooding into England's green and pleasant land; a Birmingham-worth of foreigners every five years. The people want it stopped. Poor old Mrs Duffy in Rochdale, called a bigot by nasty Scot Gordon Brown (send him home for a start).

David Cameron bravely responds by promising to cut the number of immigrants coming to Britain to the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands. He hasn't actually managed to do this yet and the latest figures show more than 100,000 coming each year. Even under the Coalition's immigrant blockade, the foreigners are somehow still infiltrating the borders. And the Tories are terrified that Ukip, which wants to stop all immigration for five years, will win the European elections in May.

But the Government's own report apparently indicates that, contrary to popular wisdom, there is no measurable impact on UK unemployment from non-EU immigration. This is so off message, however, that Number Ten has tried to sit on it until after the European elections. After all, hasn't the Home Secretary Teresa May just said that, for every 100 non-EU immigrants, 23 British people lose their jobs? She didn't sit on that one. She should have. It was a bizarre statistic.

In fact, there has been a huge amount of research into the conventional wisdoms about immigration in recent years and the surprising thing is that immigrants don't actually take our jobs, and they don't clog up the schools, and they don't even force down wages all that much; at least not any more.

It is true that Gordon Brown and the Bank of England had a cunning plan at the turn of the century to increase the labour supply to hold down the rate of inflation (bank speak for keeping down wages). But most of the evidence is that it only affected wage rates in limited areas, mostly in south coast towns.

It was deregulation, trades union "reform", persistent unemployment, poor training and the collapse of manufacturing that caused wages to fall; and, of course, the Great Recession that has caused a 10% real-terms cut since 2008. That was caused by the banks, not immigrants. Oh, and most of the Polish plumbers have gone home.

The inconvenient truth is that immigrants almost always come here to work, and not languish on benefits (far lower anyway than in other European countries that don't have our problem with foreigners). They also contribute disproportionately to GDP and they pay a lot of taxes. Without immigrants, the British economy would be in a very difficult situation because of the falling domestic birth rate and the ageing of the population. The economic argument against immigration really doesn't exist, not in a mature economy like Britain's.

If politicians thought about this for a second, you'd think it would be obvious. After all, aren't they forever saying that an independent Scotland would have to cut public spending because of the ageing of its population?

That's what the Institute for Fiscal Studies says in the report it seems to republish every six weeks. Even with oil, it said again yesterday, there will not be enough workers in Scotland to pay the taxes to meet the cost of the ageing population. True, but only if Scotland is forced to comply with Tory immigration policies that prevent young workers migrating to Scotland. If Scotland were able to increase immigration …

Oh, but the Scots would never have that, would they? Don't we know that the Scots hate immigrants just as much as English people do? Why look at the opinion polls? Well, if you look at the polls you will find that people in Scotland, even with the press hysteria, are much less bothered about immigration than people in England.

At least, that's what YouGov reported earlier this month. Only 22% of Scottish voters say they would place immigration among their top three priority issues, against 54% in England.

And no, before the London Left start accusing me of racism, I'm not saying that Scots are better than English people. It's just that the Tories and Ukip aren't part of the political culture in this country. Parties in Holyrood don't compete with each other over how to cut immigration. It's just not an issue.

And I don't actually think it is an issue in England, really, despite the endless preoccupation with it.

There is a presumption at the heart of debate in Westminster and Whitehall that the people of Britain loathe immigrants and want them kept out. This has become a kind of political shibboleth. All parties have to say that immigration "got out of control". Labour are forever having to apologise for the "mistakes" they made over immigration. Even Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander had to do it again yesterday.

But my belief is that this is an agenda that has been adopted by the political parties out of fear of a right-wing press they think, wrongly, decides the outcome of general elections. I just don't believe that English people really hate immigrants. It is just that they are forever told that their problems (lack of jobs, money, housing) are caused by immigrants and not by successive governments that have sacrificed social security on the alter of low taxation.

Immigrants aren't responsible for low pay; the minimum wage is. Immigrants haven't caused the housing crisis; lack of affordable housing has caused that.

Problems in the English health service are a result of the market reforms introduced by the Coalition Government in England. Immigrants don't drain social welfare budgets; their taxes help to pay for them.

Immigration, broadly speaking, is a good thing. Look at America, for heaven's sake. London has become a world city thanks to immigration. Immigrants aren't swamping anyone's culture or taking anyone's job. It's time we laid this whole bogey issue to rest and stopped apologising to racists, because racists is what they are.

Contextual targeting label: 
Local government

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

217281