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Behind Confusion About Immigration Lies Deeper Confusion About What It Means To Be British

Last Updated: Friday, March 7th, 2014

At Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, not a single MP ventured to ask about immigration. Downing Street at this point stood accused of suppressing a report on the subject, but no one saw advantage in voicing the accusation.

The report has since been published. It implies that Theresa May, the Home Secretary, was exaggerating when she suggested that for every 100 migrants, 23 British workers are left unemployed.

The new report, entitled “Impacts of migration on UK native employment: An analytical review of the evidence”, says immigration makes it harder for low-skilled British workers to find and keep jobs during economic downturns, but there is no obvious impact at times of economic growth.

At about the same time the Home Office released another report, by Mark Ellison QC, into “possible corruption and the role of undercover policing in the Stephen Lawrence case”. This contained such dramatic new material that it distracted attention from the migration report.

The Home Office naturally denied that the Lawrence revelations were intended to create a distraction. But even if that was their temporary effect, the subject of immigration refused to go away. James Brokenshire, the new Immigration Minister, gave a speech in which he said: “For too long, the benefits of immigration went to employers who wanted an easy supply of cheap labour, or to the wealthy metropolitan elite who wanted cheap tradesmen and services – but not to the ordinary, hard-working people of this country.”

This prompted the press to start asking questions about David and Samantha Cameron’s Nepalese nanny. The Prime Minister’s spokesman replied the nanny is “someone who came here, worked hard and wants to get on in life and is now a British citizen”.

These details are worth reciting because they illustrate a deep confusion within the Conservative Party about what kind of nation it wants to see.

On the one side stand Brokenshire, and many other Conservatives, who feel threatened by mass immigration. To them it is a grotesque betrayal of our indigenous population.

On the other side we find the view that immigrants such as the Nepalese nanny represent an enormous enrichment of our nation. These enterprising people come here because they value our tradition of freedom under the law, and know that by working hard they can get on in life. Far from threatening our nation, they are one of its chief supports, and very soon they themselves become British.

Distinguished Conservatives can be found on both sides of the argument. In the late 1960s, Enoch Powell made the case against immigration. By doing so, he helped, unfortunately, to impel several generations of immigrants into Labour’s arms.

Powell failed to realise how quickly most of these immigrants would become British, and how conservative their outlook was, believing as they did in hard work, self-reliance, religion, the monarchy and the family.

His logic was impeccable, his attachment to parliamentary sovereignty admirable, but he saw it as his duty to warn that the nation was “busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”, and here he was wrong.

Many voters take the same view as Powell. They are pessimists, who feel our way of life is being destroyed by the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. Hence the reluctance of our politicians, with a few exceptions – Boris Johnson, Vince Cable – to make a positive case for immigration.

UKIP has had considerable success in appealing to voters who feel threatened. Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have worked out what to do about this. If, like Brokenshire, they complain that “ordinary, hard-working people” in this country are being let down, they run the risk not just of endorsing Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, but of being outbid by him.

It is now over a decade since Theresa May, the present Home Secretary, warned the Tories that they are seen as the “nasty” party.  This is still a problem from which they suffer, though nowadays it is expressed more often in the belief that the Conservatives are a party of the rich, who could not care less what becomes of anyone else.

Populist outbursts against immigrants, like Brokenshire’s this week, are plainly intended to demonstrate that the Conservatives do indeed understand the worries of ordinary working people.

But the effect may just be to prompt the feeling that the Tories are an unpleasant lot, with whom ordinary people want nothing to do. Ed Miliband has pinched the “One Nation” slogan from the Tories, but has been unable to fill it with convincing content. Cameron has likewise been unable to develop a generous and attractive idea of the nation. This is the vacuum into which UKIP has moved.

By Andrew Gimson



Paul Goodman: It’s time to scale back stop and search  “What do the facts suggest for stop and search? The racism charge will be argued both ways but, unquestionably, an ethics and trust problem overshadows the police like a baleful cloud.  At one end of the scale, there is the Mitchell case.  And at the other, Hillsborough, Tomlinson, De Menezes – and, of course, Stephen Lawrence…Stop and search should be overhauled. When it comes to politics, Downing Street might find that ethnic minority voters would be more pleased and non ethnic minority ones less displeased than it fears.  But either way, reform is necessary.”

Harry Phibbs: Net migration is the wrong measure   “Since David Cameron became Prime Minister the number of British citizens choosing to emigrate has fallen. It was 138,000 to the year ending September 2013. Under the Labour Government the figure was often around 200,000 a year. Yet rather than being able to celebrate this the greater confidence in remaining here makes it harder for Mr Cameron to hit his target of keeping down ‘net migration’. Another measure of success is if talented wealth creators from France abandon socialism to live in London – thus paying tax to the British Government instead of the French one. Again this comes up as a failure in the net migration figures.”

Mark Wallace: The day I saw Ukraine’s future – through a sandbagged loophole  “The weekend’s events in Ukraine remind me of my 27th birthday. Not because I invaded a neighbouring state, but because it’s the day I saw Tskhinvali, capital of Russian-occupied South Ossetia. The sandbags framing it were part of the network of trenches held by Georgian police troops. It was a scorching hot day when I and two friends traveled north, past camps of refugees from the Russian invasion in 2008, to see the former conflict zone for ourselves. Turning off the highway onto a potholed road, our taxi driver nervously asked if we were sure about where we wanted to go.”

Lewis Baston: Ernest Marples. Yes, a rogue – but he brightened up the 1950s, and he made things happen  “Ernie Marples was, no doubt about it, a rogue. But he was difficult to dislike; his energy, chutzpah and curiosity about life gave him a certain appeal. His showmanship and self-publicity were unusual in the grey 1950s, and his talent was to make things happen. His legacy is with us when we go for a drive (particularly if there isn’t a train nearby), try to park a car and for many of us when we go home. When you next drive out on the motorway for a pleasant Sunday afternoon walk along a disused railway line, you might spare a thought for Ernie Marples.”

Andrew Gimson: Profile of Liz Truss, seen by some as a future Tory leader   “Nigel Lawson once observed: ‘A key to understanding Mrs Thatcher was that she actually said what she believed.’ The same could be said of Truss. This is one reason why some Tories see her as a future leader. Seldom have I heard a junior minister so praised by colleagues, including those who have not yet been offered ministerial posts. It should be added that Truss has not yet acquired much experience: she only got her present job in September 2012. One backbencher described her as ‘good, but not yet the finished article’. But one of Truss’s strengths is that she so plainly enjoys politics. She is not forcing herself to be so energetic: it is her natural game. A woman who knows her recently expressed the hope that Truss would not follow the example of some other Tory women who have decided to leave politics. Truss replied: ‘God, they’d have to take me out in a box.’”

By Andrew Gimson

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