Alex Deane argues that nation states are entitled to make their own decisions about who comes to their countries and the manner in which they come.
The Conservative Party was elected in May on a manifesto which pledged to reduce net immigration to the UK to below 100,000 people a year.
Whether a net figure is the most helpful measurement is a genuine question: a nation may be losing valuable citizens in the emigration that effectively masks the size of the incoming population when it’s stated within a net figure, a situation which produces doubly bad results but presents the former as ameliorating rather than exacerbating the latter.
But putting this point to one side, it is plain that we are presently failing to come anywhere near this target. The most recently released information from the Office for National Statistics shows that the net immigration figure to March this year is still over 300,000 – and rising. It’s up more than a quarter on the previous year.
This is one of the many reasons that I support our Prime Minister in his intention to renegotiate our relationship with the European Union. Presently, the Government simply cannot curb immigration by citizens from European Union countries, which rose to 183,000 in the 12 months to March.
As a result, we clamp down on the immigration we can control: the arrival of skilled workers from outside the EU and those who come here to study. This is perverse, as in my view there is a pretty strong correlation between that which we can control and that which we shouldn’t. The workers boost our GDP and come for jobs that need them with employers who can vouch for them. The students come and pay through the nose, effectively subsidising our educational sector. All can be easily tracked by dint of the processes they complete in order to arrive, and most go home.
In any case, that leaves aside unskilled and semi-skilled labour – mostly from within the EU – which makes up a lot of the immigration coming to the UK. It is often pointed out that those arriving are undertaking work that needs doing but British people seem unwilling to do. It’s also pointed out that, contrary to stereotype, such immigrants claim less from our state systems than UK citizens, too (albeit there is still a volume of use point to be made when immigrants are present in such numbers).
But even whilst acknowledging the validity of these points, there are two significant points to be made. The first is that my own generally liberal instincts about immigration aren’t identical with those held in society or our Party more widely (perhaps, unlike others in the metropolitan bubble, at least I can recognise that point). There is a significant, society-splitting disconnect here. Generally speaking, those doing the deciding about immigration aren’t competing for work against those who come as a result of the decisions they make.
For as long as the ‘mainstream’ parties continue to neglect this political ground, extremists either side of them will thrive in it. John Howard, arguably the most important conservative leader of the post-Thatcher era and certainly the most successful, had an answer to this. He consciously campaigned to convince those attracted by One Nation’s message in his country that his Liberal Party cared about their concerns and would address them. He co-opted enough of their agenda within his own broad platform that the upstart party withered and died, its ground absorbed by the professional party of government which faced them.
This is predictable. All things being equal, voters generally prefer to vote for mature political parties with rounded platforms, so long as their agenda is addressed to at least some degree within that platform. It is when their concerns are ignored – or not even just ignored, but trashed and mocked, labelled as racist – that they turn elsewhere.
The second and final point is that nation states are entitled to make their own decisions about who comes to their countries and the manner in which they come. Even if it’s right to have immigration running as it is – or even higher – we’re entitled to choose the nature of our migration system, something that our present treaty arrangements with the EU denies. Whilst I wouldn’t pursue such a policy myself, many within the Conservative Party and those likely to vote for it would like to ‘clamp down’ on immigration and – having had a manifesto commitment to that effect made by a Party subsequently successfully returned to our supposedly sovereign Parliament – if ‘clamping down’ is wrong then, bluntly, we are entitled to be wrong.
Anyone is free to agree or disagree with present or future British policy; the main principle presently at stake is that it’s our right to decide what the policy is in the first place.
Alex Deane is Managing Director and Head of Public Affairs UK at FTI Consulting. The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting LLP, its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members of employees.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 07/03/2016.