By Sir Andrew Green
Chairman of Migration Watch UK
The Daily Telegraph, 29 October, 2014
Immigration, it seems, is still a minefield. The Defence Secretary had only to use the word “swamped” at the weekend for the usual suspects to descend on him like a ton of bricks. No 10 suggested that he could have chosen his words better, politicians on both sides of the House condemned his use of language, and the newspapers were filled with opprobrium. Michael Fallon, as might be expected, duly withdrew his remarks.
Now, however, David Blunkett – who suffered a similar fate in 2002 when he was the home secretary – has come riding to the rescue, praising Mr Fallon for his candour. This is welcome news: for the danger is that a debate about language will close down a legitimate, indeed essential, conversation about the impact that current levels of immigration are having on our society.
For us to have that conversation, and for it to be constructive, we need to follow three essential guidelines: stick to the facts; don’t demonise your opponents; and, above all, don’t condescend to the public.
At Migration Watch UK, it has always been our belief that the only way to navigate the choppy seas of the immigration debate is to stick to the facts. That is how we have reached our current position at the forefront of the debate, despite being a small and largely voluntary organisation.
Some facts are, of course, disputed. But the broad picture is fairly clear. Although the business lobby and academia focus on the economic benefits of immigration, the reality is that their case is surprisingly weak, particularly at the current massive levels.
The most thorough economic analysis was conducted by the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs in 2008. The panel included two former chancellors of the Exchequer, a former governor of the Bank of England, an eminent labour market economist and a former head of the Financial Services Authority. You would think that, between them, they might know a thing or two. They concluded, evidently somewhat to their surprise, that “we have found no evidence for the argument, made by the government, business and many others, that net migration generates significant economic benefits for the existing UK population”.
When the government’s Migration Advisory Committee came to look at the report, it did not seriously challenge the conclusions; it simply noted that much of the benefit went to the immigrants themselves. Nevertheless, the immigration lobby has remained in denial.
Of course, there are a number of economic benefits that do not lend themselves to calculation – for example, the benefit to Britain of new ideas, new energy and the development of worldwide links. Indeed, nobody disputes the importance of immigration in an open economy and society. The issue is entirely one of scale, and that is where any sensible debate must lie.
Since the previous government took power in 1997, nearly five million migrants have entered Britain. The proportion of our population who are foreign-born has almost doubled since 1991, to more than 13 per cent. And if immigration is allowed to continue at present levels, the population will increase by 12 million in the next 20 years. This will have huge practical and social consequences, which must be openly discussed.
Sadly, the BBC – the main and most influential source of news for the British public – has consistently failed in its duty to inform the public about immigration, in terms of both the immediate as well as the long-term impacts. Breezy admissions of this from outgoing director-generals distract from what has clearly been a failure of duty. You could argue that any serious discussion of this topic would be made for radio and hopeless on television. But never in the 13 years since Migration Watch UK was founded have I heard a radio programme set out the case against mass immigration. Instead, the process of selection, whether conscious or otherwise, has ensured that the case in favour of immigration permeates the BBC’s output. I recall that one of its executives told a newspaper: “We were slow on the story. We probably didn’t like what he was saying…”
This brings me to my second guideline: don’t demonise your opponents. We have certainly experienced that. We were welcomed, in 2002, by an editorial in The Independent that described us “as a nasty little group which deserves to fail”. And we are not out of the woods yet. A particularly vitriolic article in the London Evening Standard of October 22 was clearly designed to insinuate that my motives are racist. That kind of writing does nothing for the debate, nor the author.
A third useful guideline is to avoid condescending to the public. They may not have the latest statistics on the tip of their tongues, but they know that immigration has got out of hand. Furthermore, they feel that previous governments have not told the truth – and that the present Coalition, despite its promises, is unlikely to achieve its target of reducing net migration to 100,000 people a year.
It is very unfortunate that the public should have such a negative view of the performance of successive governments on a matter of real importance to their future. It is sometimes implied that the voters are really rather foolish on this issue, and that opposition to the present scale of immigration is less among those who have actual experience of it. But an opinion poll that Migration Watch recently UK conducted found this to be quite wrong – only 11 per cent of the public thought that immigration had improved their local community. In fact, three times as many felt that immigration had changed their community for the worse.
London is normally held up as a model for the positive power of immigration. In our poll, 73 per cent of those in the capital felt that it had had a great deal or a fair amount of impact in their area – much higher than any other region. Similarly, more people in London felt that immigration had changed their community than anywhere else. But the numbers saying their area had changed for the worse outnumbered those who felt it had changed it for the better by more than 2 to 1. The balance of opinion was similarly negative in every other region apart from Scotland. And it’s not just one poll: similar results were found by Searchlight, an organisation that describes itself as “anti-fascist”, in its own survey three years ago.
There are those who suggest that Britain has coped successfully with many waves of immigration in the past. They are, however, in denial about the sheer scale of the influx that we now face. They are also being condescending to the public, many of whom, as our poll shows, have made up their own minds on the basis of their own experience and are tired of being patted on the head by politicians.
It is only fair to say that Theresa May has avoided this bear trap. The Home Secretary has been firm, almost implacable, on substance, while being measured in her language. This has to be the right approach – but we also have to recognise that it will take at least another five years, and probably 10, to restore some kind of order into the chaos which has developed in our immigration system. So this Government, indeed any government, must make serious and effective efforts to get immigration under control, before the strains in our society become a real cause of concern.