Yvette Cooper’s reasonable and sensible speech on migration today is worth reading, even though it begins with that hoary old cliché about politicians not talking about immigration.
A quick search of Hansard identifies some 50,000 references to the word immigration, let alone such things as aliens, the colour problem, the Jewish, or Irish, or Commonwealth question and other historically acceptable terms for the same issue.
One day I want to find the source of this rhetorical denial.
“I shall not make it a major election issue but I think there is a feeling that the big political parties have not been talking about this and sometimes, you know, we are falsely accused of racial prejudice. I say “falsely accused” and that means that we do not talk about it perhaps as much as we should.”
This from someone who was a member of parliament during the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962, the Commonweath immigration act 1968 and who was a cabinet minister during the passage of the 1971 Immigration act, which was itself the fulfillment of the 1970 Conservative manifesto pledge that “There will be no further large scale permanent immigration“.
And that’s without thinking of the Monday club, the Halt immigration now-ers and the other flotsam and jetsam of the Conservative party that squalled noisily in the Tory wake in that era of silence on immigration.
Since then, of course, there has been further political quietude about immigration, as Mehdi Hasan, among others, has demonstrated.
Whether one looks forward or back from the Thacher era, we’ve been talking about immigration for a very long time indeed.
Read the Commons debates for the Aliens Bill of 1904, and you feel you’re transported into a Victorian simulcra of the debates of today. Eastern European migrants? Overcrowded housing? Degrading effect on the wages of the working man? Passionate declarations of a personal lack of prejudicial feeling? Accusations of misleading figures and propaganda? It’s all there.
“The Christian fares as the Canaanite fared. He is expropriated. Chapel after chapel has been closed, many mission halls have been abandoned, and the congregations of the few that remain are dwindling every day. The Bishop of Stepney, speaking on November 24, 1902, said that East London was growing more and more poverty-stricken. In some districts every vestige of comfort had been absolutely wiped out, the foreigners coming in like an army of locusts, eating up the English inhabitants or driving them out.”
Even when put in less lurid tones, the points made have a familiar ring. Here is Evans-Gordon on the economic consequences of immigration:
“Members opposite do not live in daily terror of being turned into the street to make room for an unsavoury Pole, their rent is not raised by 50 per cent. or 100 per cent, in a week, their wages are not cut down, their employment is not taken from them. They do not see opening after opening which formerly offered some chance of employment closed and filled by cheap imported labour; they do not see the business on which they and their parents have lived dwindle and fall into bankruptcy.”1
A hundred years has passed since then, yet for all we’ve talked about immigration, the debate has a wearyingly familiar tone.
I find myself divided on this.
Ideologically and personally I am instinctively pro-immigration. I read the old reports about crowding, and poverty, and ghettoisation, and undercutting wages, and I think: well, they were just wrong.We have had ever more immigration, and become ever less crowded in our housing, ever better paid, and ever more assimilated to one another.
Yet I also understand the pressure a politician feels to respond to disquiet and dismay, and that in every decade, the fears and concerns and worries have been the same, and have been the so for explicable, reasonable reasons. I know the polling figures, and know that you don’t get far electorally by telling the electorate they are wrong.
All this means I grasp why politicians like to pretend this subject was untouched before, hidden, unspoken, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I understand why leftish people say immigration must be addressed, when they mean housing must be addressed, wages must be addressed, education must be addressed, skills must be addressed.
It is all a way of saying to voters: “I accept your right to be concerned”, without quite saying that the concern itself is right.
Thus the politician creates the space for some moderate, sensible reform – of housing, or wages, or language, exploitation, which will have precious little effect on general immigration in the face of greater global trends, and the voter can feel listened to, the politician unsullied, and the economy undamaged.
It is a sort of workable cant, and that is far from the worst sort of immigration politics.
I can’t help but feel though that it’s not enough.
I usually hide from the debate, in the belief that although the Great British public vehemently disagree with me about immigration, they don’t in fact care very much about it. I rely on Mr Blair’s approach – to allow the Tories no other space to operate in, let them exhaust themselves in rage over immigrants, and then propose the detailed, workable, practical changes that are all most people really care about, without conceding any ground on the value of an open society.
I’m told by those who ought to know that I am wrong about the electoral consequence of this, which would strip away this last comforting illusion.
So what can we do instead?
I’d start by stopping the politics of suggestion – refusing the temporary relief you get from telling people you listen to their concerns, and are responding with a series of mostly irrelevant proposals. Usually (for example when it comes to low skill migrants), there is nothing the proposals, while worthy in themselves, will do to address the stated concerns. They are the phantom of a response, not a response.
This seems a patchwork solution, and an unprincipled one.
Instead, perhaps draw a line, and say: “You are right up to this point, and so we will act, here, here, and here, but beyond that then there is benefit to migration, and it is needed and so you will not get what you want, because it would do greater damage than it would benefit”.
Otherwise, I think we’re doomed to keep talking, and never acting.
- “an unsavoury Pole” here is code for “Jew” [↩]