Has there ever been a more successful melting pot than the UK? Almost by accident, we seem to have welcomed 1.2 million immigrants last year, with Brexit leading to a different mix. Poles, Czechs and Bulgarians used to dominate – now it’s more Indians, Filipinos and Nigerians. Most walk straight into jobs where grateful employers are crying out for staff. They tend to earn more than the average, so become net contributors to the exchequer. This is what to remember in the general debate about immigration: just how many political problems it solves.
The headline number, 606,000 more people arriving than departing last year, is hugely controversial. It’s six times David Cameron’s old target. It raises embarrassing questions about what “taking back control” meant, or why the Tories have doubled the net migration that they promised to cut. But without these industrious newcomers, the Tories would be forced to confront deep social and economic issues like mass welfare dysfunction, the skills gap, the mental health crisis. No politician is very keen to do that.
Brexit has given Sunak complete control over the borders, to numbers as low as he likes. But he won’t use these powers, because the newcomers offer such help in politically sensitive areas. That’s why, in the Cabinet, there is only one voice regularly calling for lower numbers: that of Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary. Everyone else is shocked – shocked! – to see so many come to fill these vacancies.
When Sajid Javid was home secretary, he quickly moved to relax immigration rules for NHS recruits. There certainly was and remains an acute problem: big staff shortages and lack of homegrown medics. This is due to a shocking shortage of places in British medical schools, whereby hundreds of straight-A students are rejected every year. But fixing this would cost about £1 billion a year, money ministers would rather not spend. Importing Filipinos is far cheaper. Health visas are now issued at the rate of almost 600 a day.
Then, the students. University fees have barely risen since being capped at £9,000 a year in 2010, a sum now decimated by inflation. So: what to do? Increase the cap and charge Brits £12,000? Or fill campuses with Americans and Nigerians who happily pay £35,000, thereby subsidising the locals? Again, politically, it’s a no-brainer. Mass immigration is a tool to keep British fees low – it’s just that no one likes to admit it.
Finally, the economy. “Cut immigration” isn’t one of Sunak’s five pledges, but “grow the economy” is. So in a conflict between the two, he’ll go for growth – even if it means extra housing pressure and lower salaries. Voters, he thinks, are more troubled by the small boats issue. If he gets legal permission to start Rwanda deportations (the Court of Appeal verdict is due next month), he hopes the sheer drama and controversy will shrink talk about legal migration – all based on numbers that, anyway, seem to keep changing.
So to an extent seldom properly appreciated outside Whitehall, the whole government system is hardwired to favour mass immigration. If Jeremy Hunt did want to tighten the visa criteria, to push migration numbers back to the original post-Brexit projections, this would be “scored” or assessed by the Office for Budget Responsibility. They’d say that this would cut 0.2 per cent a year from the economic growth. This would horrify Sunak, whose big-five promise to “grow the economy” sits on a knife edge.
Not much thought is given to the electoral effects of demographic change, but the Tories aren’t worried. When Labour started considering enfranchising EU nationals in general elections, Conservatives joked about countering by enlisting Nigerians and Indians. The numbers are so small that it is no more than a joke, but the Tories are quite comfortable with the idea of a multi-racial future. Had Kemi Badenoch made the final two in last summer’s leadership race, the party might now have its first African-British leader.
We should see all this from Sunak’s perspective. The immigration numbers are embarrassing, but a recession would be more so. And where is the political threat? All kinds of parties stood in this month’s local elections in England and the anti-immigration backlash was noticeable by its absence. Richard Tice’s Reform party lost 474 out of the 480 seats it contested. The recent National Conservatism conference was largely a Twitter phenomenon. Nigel Farage remains confined to a TV studio.
An opinion poll of 17 countries showed Britain more relaxed than anyone else about the new arrivals. We remain the only country in Europe without any anti-immigration populist party in Parliament or the polls. The problem isn’t with the immigrants: it’s with the societal and economic problems that immigration allows politicians to ignore.
A former minister who spent years closely involved with immigration policy once explained it to me. “Institutionally, regardless of personality, every government department sees immigration as a cheap way of solving their problem.” In theory, politicians want it brought down. In practice, they can’t get enough of this hugely effective short-term fix. And that is, alas, what Toryism has now become: an endless succession of short-term fixes. The Brexit chance to forge a new economic model has been lost.
All of this will, I suspect, have implications. Had Brexit powers been used to constrain migration, care homes might be forced to pay more than supermarkets. If British employers had thought the immigration tap had run dry, they’d be more likely to invest in automation, training and higher pay. All of this could have renewed the case for a free market economy, one that works better for those at the bottom. It could even have been the basis for a new Conservatism.
So what now? Instead of prosperity, we see the highest taxes and biggest fall in real-terms salaries on record. Polls show Labour now more trusted on immigration. When Kate Forbes ran for SNP leader she proposed a £15 per hour care home minimum wage: that kind of pledge may be the only hope such workers have now. At any stage, the Tories can make serious changes to the visa criteria. But until they do, their pledge to cut migration will stand exposed as a tedious bluff that the whole country can see through.
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