Just 18 months ago, London staged an opening ceremony for the Olympic Games that revelled in the multicultural nature of British society and celebrated the role of immigrants. Prime Minister David Cameron was in the audience, clapping along. In London about one in three residents was born overseas. If you count people like me, whose parents were immigrants, well over half the population of the UK capital must have roots abroad. The recent wave of 1m migrants to Britain from the newer EU member states in central and eastern Europe has integrated well. Indeed, it has become common to contrast the work ethic of young Polish immigrants with their relatively feckless British counterparts.
And yet now, according to his critics, Mr Cameron is assaulting the openness to immigration that has made Britain a dynamic and attractive society. Laszlo Andor, the EU’s employment commissioner, spoke for many when he suggested that the prime minister’s proposals to qualify the principle of free movement of people within the EU risks creating the perception that Britain is a “nasty” country.
However, the condemnation of the Cameron policy, while emotionally satisfying, ignores four fundamental points: the history of immigration; the limited and moderate nature of his proposals; the state of British politics; and wider political trends in Europe.
Take immigration first. Even in countries that have benefited hugely from immigration, open-door periods have always been followed by a tightening. The US let in almost 24m migrants from 1900 to 1920, before greatly restricting access to its shores. Britain encouraged migration from the Commonwealth in the 1950s, before tightening up in 1962. It is possible both to believe that those waves of immigration benefited the UK and the US – and to accept that open-door policies could not be maintained forever.
The accession of the new members to the EU has sparked a new wave of migration to Britain. Given the scale of that movement, the measures Mr Cameron has announced are – by the standards of previous crackdowns – strikingly mild. Immigrants will have to wait three months before claiming unemployment benefit and will not be eligible for housing benefit. People sleeping rough could be deported. Mr Cameron also suggests that if large, poor countries join the EU in future, new measures should be put in place to prevent further waves of mass migration – an idea that has already been adopted by the EU itself, in membership talks with Turkey. The suggestion that these mild measures represent a full-scale assault on freedom of movement within Europe is absurd.
Nonetheless, Mr Cameron’s critics charge that his immigration policy is driven by low politics rather than the national interest. It is certainly true that the prime minister is alarmed by the rise of the UK Independence party, which campaigns for withdrawal from the EU and against immigration – and which will spearhead the “Out” campaign when there is a referendum on EU membership in 2017. Some political pundits argue that Mr Cameron is playing into Ukip’s hands by stoking up fears of EU migrants. It would be better, they say, simply to boldly make the case for the benefits of immigration. It is doubtless satisfying to make this argument from the comfort of an armchair in Hampstead. But it is noticeable that few mainstream politicians – the people who actually have to persuade voters – think that this line is a winner. On the contrary, the nominally leftwing Labour party is attacking Mr Cameron for being too weak on welfare and EU immigration.
The notion that there are real public concerns about immigration that need to be addressed is reinforced by developments in the rest of Europe. Within hours of Mr Cameron’s article in the Financial Times, the French and German governments announced that they planned to take similar measures on temporary workers and on access to welfare benefits. Other European governments are also facing far-right political parties that are capitalising on popular hostility to immigration. The Freedom party in the Netherlands and the National Front in France could both top the polls in next year’s European parliament elections – which would be a revolutionary challenge to the establishment. In Hungary, home to Mr Andor, a nationalist government is undermining basic freedoms, while the openly racist Jobbik party surges in the polls – developments that are genuinely “nasty”.
If mainstream politicians loftily ignore the rise of far-right parties they will end up endangering the very freedoms that liberals rightly cherish. The moves that the British prime minister announced are not an assault on free movement of people in Europe. They are the kind of reforms that will be necessary if the principle is to survive.
NO: Politicians should refute the hysteria
Concern has become the weasel word of British public life. Politicians who cannot justify their policies with evidence resort to observing that voters are concerned and want something done. The debate about immigration, or what passes for one, has pushed this trend to postmodern extremes: any objective fact can be gainsaid by “concerns”, “perceptions” and other intangibles.
Prime Minister David Cameron’s FT column on Wednesday, which argued for restricting freedom of movement within the EU, was a classic of the genre. He used the C-word twice in the opening paragraph. He damned the previous Labour government’s decision to withhold controls on immigration from central and eastern Europe as a “monumental mistake”, which is a monumental assertion. At no point did he offer evidence that EU migration has harmed Britain’s economy overall, or hurt certain kinds of native workers, or created a problem of benefits tourism, or led to more vagrancy, or put undue pressure on public services and infrastructure, or sapped the economic life of the countries from where these migrants arrive.
Yet on this fact-free foundation rest not only his policies to limit migrants’ access to the welfare state, but Britain’s vaunted renegotiation of EU membership, a diplomatic project that looks likely to seek changes to free movement above all else. And Mr Cameron, remember, is a model of reason by the standards of his Conservative party, who would love him to go much further.
It takes some insouciance to look at this spectacle and not worry. Unless we are to smudge the line between representative democracy and the more direct version, we cannot believe that popular clamour alone is a good enough reason to pursue this or that policy. Politicians must at least attempt to summon an empirical case for the things they do. And if they do not, we should assume it is because they cannot.
This is just the principled objection to the government’s announcement. Even as a piece of realpolitik, the policy will fail. Its defenders argue that only by soothing public grievances about immigration can Britain avoid a great revolt over the issue one day: a surge of support for the far-right, for example, or a vote to leave the EU in the referendum pencilled in for 2017. This is always the huckster’s case for getting tough on migrants: if mainstream politicians do not do it, who knows what might happen? Better to buy off the anger before it turns ugly.
What is the evidence that this ever works? For three years the government has operated a severe annual limit on immigration, supported by wall-to-wall boasts of their toughness and some tawdry publicity stunts. It has achieved concrete results, namely a fall of one-third in net immigration. No government in recent decades has taken a more restrictive approach. And yet it has not put a dent in public concern over the issue, which is higher now than it was in 2010. According to Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham university, the proportion of voters who trust none of the mainstream parties on immigration is close to 50 per cent.
What more can ministers do to placate public opinion? An even lower limit on net migration than the one that is already irking business? A challenge to the basic principle – not just the details – of free movement in Europe? The reality is that there is not much scope for the government to make its immigration policy even harsher without leaving the EU.
In the long term, Mr Cameron will only aggravate public opinion on immigration by raising expectations that cannot be met. Whatever turns out to be the precise number of arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania, voters will regard it as too high. They will then rage at the prime minister who talked such a good game in November 2013, what with his benefit restrictions and promising to water down free movement.
From the Commonwealth arrivals of the post-1945 decades to the Albanian asylum-seekers of the late 1990s to the great wave of eastern Europeans after 2004, political panics about immigration follow a pattern. The public resents the influx. Sympathetic commentators tout the preposterous, bleating notion that they are “not allowed to talk about immigration”, despite rarely talking about anything else. Politicians try to calm things down by tightening policy and intensifying their rhetoric. And they fail.
There is another approach. Politicians could stick to the facts, which refute the hysteria about benefits tourism. They could celebrate free movement in the EU as a glory of the modern world that allows roughly 2m Britons to reside on the continent. And they could argue that, for a country trying to compete in a world economy, receiving lots of mainly young and industrious people might not be an utter catastrophe. They could call it the “global race” or something.