The latest news on UK immigration may be greeted by some as good news, but in fact it demonstrates how the UK government has been playing a risky game indeed with immigration policy, pandering to myths in order to garner votes, and entrepreneurship may be the next victim.
Perception matters. The government can say what it likes about immigration, it can try and present the face of reasonableness, but we all know the reality. Immigrants are blamed for much of the country’s ills. Some might think that such blame is appropriate, others are horrified. But ever since Gordon Brown was caught off guard describing a labour party member as being racist, after she expressed her alarms over immigration during the 2010 election campaign, we have seen a shift in the way the immigration debate is treated by the higher echelons in politics. It has become politically acceptable to fret over the levels of immigration and in doing this the flag of respectability has been waved at quarters of the UK population who hold views most us would find abhorrent.
The Daily Mail reacted with glee, in 2009, when Mr Brown admitted that it was not racist to be concerned over the level of immigration and at that time, the chairman of Migration Watch, Andrew Green said that the Prime Minister was in “deep denial” about the scale of the challenge in reducing migration. That was the tone of the debate in 2009.
The truth is the deep denial is quite different. We know that when things go wrong, it is human nature to look for someone to blame, and if that someone is from a minority sector of society, all the easier. The UK economy has had a difficult ten years, inequality is a growing problem, growth in real wages has been its lowest ever recorded, and this has created resentment. The causes are complex, but if we blame globalisation, multiculturalism, and immigration we woefully miss the point. The evidence is overwhelming, these forces promote wealth creation, they do not make it worse.
According to folklore, following the outbreak of disease in a remote region, the local ruler,. noticed that the disease was worse in areas where there were more doctors. So, he enacted his solution, get rid of the doctors. The anti-immigration backlash, a backlash that has now become respectable, a backlash that was the real reason why so many people voted Brexit, is a latter day example of what that leader did. It is a total misrepresentation of the truth.
We know that without migrants, the NHS would be in chaos, yet we hear the naysayers say that the NHS cannot cope with immigration. We know that without the unskilled, poorly paid, and very hard-working wave of immigrants who come over here to tend our fields, and take on seasonal jobs in the agricultural industry, the UK farming industry would be close to collapse. We know that the UK universities, many famous around the world, are one of the UK’s most important assets, and we know that without foreign students, they would be starved of the money they need to retain their reputation for excellence. And we know that without immigrants, the UK’s new breed of entrepreneur would be stymied at the outset – indeed many of the UK’s entrepreneurs are themselves immigrants.
But if you don’t make people feel welcome, if you make it clear you want them to leave, if you place billboards on the side of vans urging illegal immigrants to go home, it sends out a message that makes legal immigrants feel very uncomfortable.
The official statistics show that in the year to March 2017, net long-term migration – that is immigration minus emigration – fell by 81,000 on the year before, to 246,000. Immigration dropped by 50,000, emigration rose by 31,000.
The level of emigration was the highest since 2012, the figure for immigration was the lowest since 2014.
There was a sharp drop in net migration from eastern Europe.
On their own, these figures are not that big a deal, but they show a trend, and we all know the reason for it. Foreigners just don’t feel welcome anymore.
Oh well, give the people what they want, and pay the price. It is just that too many politicians have been afraid to spell out facts, too much of the immigration debate has been littered with myth and half-truths.
Back in October last year, Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary gave a speech in which she said “We mustn’t ignore the fact that people want to talk about immigration, and if we do talk about immigration, don’t call me a racist.” Okay, fair enough, but at least make an effort to present the facts that demonstrate the benefits of immigration – she is not a racist, but when you pander to the forces that put facts to one side, and cast blame on the easier targets, you deserve to be castigated.
Now it has emerged, from a survey carried out on exit checks at British airports, that just six per cent of EU students stayed in the UK post study. “There is no evidence of a major issue of non-EU students overstaying their entitlement to stay,” said the ONS.
Ms Rudd said: "There is no limit to the number of genuine international students who can come to the UK to study and the fact that we remain the second most popular global destination for those seeking higher education is something to be proud of.”
That may or may not be so, but rhetoric matters and it is time that politicians had the courage to stand-up to the poplar anti-immigration back-lash.