I blame Phil Woolas. In making his factually-limited and politically dangerous statement about curbing immigration during a recession, the immigration minister seemed to be going out of his way to legitimise as large a number of right-wing myths (‘coming over here, stealing our jobs’) as possible. Apart from the logistical idiocy of curbing economic immigration at a time when the Chancellor has rediscovered Keynes and is looking to bring forward a number of major infrastructure projects (as un-exclusively predicted by The Animal), Woolas has effectively given the government’s stamp of legitimacy to the inflammatory principle that foreign workers ‘take’ British jobs and that immigration is ‘out of control’. Beyond the succor that such a shift in the terms of public debate give to the extreme right, from a Labour point of view there should also be concern that Woolas’ statement has effectively allowed the Conservatives to claim that they were right all along and that it is somehow practical or desirable to set a limit on inward migration to the UK.
Inevitably, Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve (you know, he was brought in after that other guy went off in some sort of huff…) has sought to make hay today from the apparent government u-turn. In an article in today’s Evening Standard Grieve says
bit by bit, the Government is increasingly talking about immigration in terms that mirror what the Conservative Party has been saying with consistency for years.
The worrying thing is that, in a way, he’s right. Of course, Grieve’s conclusion is (and I hope for the sake of race relations in this country that he is right) that the government won’t follow through on its tough words and that only the Conservatives can be trusted to ‘manage’ the migration system. But to be fair to Grieve, whilst his words are tough and the dog-whistle message to the knuckle draggers is certainly in there, he does seek to measure his words, noting that ‘some economic migration brings benefits.’ After all, the Tories can’t go in for blanket insulting of economic migrants any more: they’re hoping some of them will vote for them.
Luckily for Grieve, though, he doesn’t need to be too explicit to the Standard regarding the true basis of Tory thinking on migration. Because there are other sources that will spell out to the Conservative activist base the message that it so desperately wants to here. The ConservativeHome website reports on Grieve’s article, praising at length both the article and its author. Apparently, because Grieve has
worked as hard or harder than any Conservative MP […] to build a stronger relationship between the Conservatives and ethnic minority groups
he is now able to speak with ‘particular credibility’ on the issue of immigration. Given that the Conservatives’ efforts to build links with ethnic minorities has (like almost all parties) been built mainly around settled minority communities and the currently ‘controversial’ migrants are more recent arrivals (generally without a vote), I fail to see exactly how Mr Grieve’s alleged relationship-building gives him some kind of special authority on the issue. Unless, of course, you take the view that because you were nice to someone from an ethnic minority on Monday, that makes it OK to act insultingly towards someone from a different ethnicity on Tuesday.
ConservativeHome goes on to summarise Mr Grieve’s article – but in a highly selective way. Put simply, wherever Mr Grieve has said anything which could be considered pro-immigration in any way, ConservativeHome expunges it from its summary. Take this section:
Labour’s record of failure: “Net immigration has quadrupled under Labour, fuelled both by the lack of transitional controls on new EU member states and a failure to control economic migration from outside the EU. Britain is on course to have the largest population in the EU, with the Office for National Statistics predicting that half of this surge will come from immigration… A YouGov poll last year found that the public regarded the failure to control immigration as Tony Blair’s greatest failure in office.”
‘Labour’s record of failure’ is ConservativeHome, the rest is Grieve, but out of context. Nowhere in the article does he describe these points as being a ‘failure’, but simply suggests them as facts . Rather, ConservativeHome has made the normative judgement that these are ‘failures’. Now stop me if I’m wrong, but I thought the ‘new’ Cameronite Tories weren’t supposed to be automatically saying that immigration is a ‘bad thing’ or a ‘failure’ – that was supposed to have been left behind in the 1980s. But here they are, saying exactly that.
Now we can question why exactly Grieve chose to use the net immigration figure – it is a very crude tool which doesn’t take into account the amount of time that each migrant remains in the UK, unless they leave again within the period (normally a year) being surveyed. Given that large proportions of economic migrants are indeed short-term arrivals – and anecdotal evidence being reported in today’s media suggests that the most recent wave of central European immigrants are leaving the UK in response to the economic downturn – the net figures are of limited use. Likewise, the attempt to shock the readers with the ‘revelation’ that Britain is on course for having the largest population in the EU is not all that it seems. The UK is already, give or take a little, the joint second largest member state (with France) after Germany. History and economics should mean that it is hardly surprising that the UK is on track to surpass Germany: for starters, Germany experienced a smaller post-war baby boom than the UK, thanks to higher wartime death rates and less economic and political optimism post-war. Thus the ageing process, which is affecting all western European indigenous populations came earlier to Germany than the UK. Secondly, a much worse economic record over the past decade – the country has never really recovered from the loss of its post-war, Marshall Plan-funded economic dominance – mas made Germany a much less attractive migration destination than previously and saw large portions of its migrant population return home. In other words, Britain’s continuing population growth is a symptom of a) being on the winning side of World War II and b) experiencing more than a decade of economic boom: i.e. a success story. And surely the extra votes in the Council of Ministers that will come with being the largest EU nation would be welcome to any Tory government?
Having manufactured the previous negative paragraph out of Grieve’s article, ConservativeHome then picks out another claiming that economic migration makes no significant contribution to GDP. Either with or without the Shadow Home Secretary’s connivance, the synopsis of his not entirely unbalanced article in the Standard (a few parts of which, such as the need for greater infrastructure investment to cope with population growth, even I agree with) has been turned into a migrant-bashing piece for the delectation of the Tory faithful. The worrying question therefore arises: which is the true voice of the man who is potentially the next Home Secretary? Sadly, neither is exactly alluring, but I think I can guess which one Conservative Party members will prefer.