The ‘debate’ about immigration in recent weeks has failed to focus on the crucial issue – the sheer scale that immigration has reached and its inevitable impact on our future. Perhaps this week’s ‘earthquake’ will prepare the ground for a serious discussion of what has to be done while preserving our open society and economy.
The fundamental reality is that, under Labour, net foreign immigration was very nearly four million, while one million British citizens emigrated. Of Labour’s four million, only one third were from Eastern Europe, but those are the only ones that they mention. It cannot have escaped their notice that the other two and a half million are from outside the EU and are heavily inclined to vote Labour. Indeed, if they are from Commonwealth countries they do not even have to gain British citizenship to vote in our general elections.
The public debate has focused almost entirely on eastern Europeans. This may be because everyone is terrified of accusations of racism. It may also be because eastern Europeans are spread widely across the country and come to the notice of the general public. They are perceived as taking British jobs – as indeed they do. The legion of pro-immigration economists claim that other jobs will be created. Even if that were so, the prospect of some other job, in some other industry, in some other part of the country is of no help to a British worker who has a child in a local school and whose spouse or partner may well also be working locally. It seems that this dislocation of working peoples’ lives has until now escaped the notice of the commentators.
These same people, many of them traditional Labour voters, also find that their maternity units, primary schools and doctors surgeries are coming under pressure of extra numbers. The only response they have received from the metropolitan elite has been condescension at best or snide accusations of xenophobia, even racism, at worst. No wonder they are furious.
What about the ‘invisible’ two thirds of the immigrants who arrived under Labour? They mainly disappear into the city centres and join their own communities in conditions that are increasingly unsatisfactory but are still, usually, much better than in their home countries.
But they cannot be excluded from the debate. In the long term their arrival in such numbers poses a serious problem of integration. Indeed, in parts of our major cities there is no indigenous British community with which to integrate. The foreign-born population has already doubled in twenty years. One academic study suggests that, in fifty years time, the white English will find themselves a minority in England. The public sense this and wonder in what kind of a country their children and grandchildren will grow up.
If net migration continues at the average level of the past decade, we will add ten million to our population in the next twenty years. That is a colossal number, with huge implications, both for our society and our environment. It is no use the immigration lobby assuring us that we have plenty of green fields that could be built over. Few people want to see that. Even so, we will have to build one home every seven minutes to house new immigrants and their families. We may eventually build the houses but we will never sufficiently improve the roads that will become progressively choked with traffic in many parts of England.
The public can see this. That is why 77 per cent want immigration reduced, 78 per cent believe that England is already overcrowded and 85 per cent think that immigration is placing too much pressure on public services. This is the subterranean pressure, denied and even derided by Labour and the Lib Dems, that led to the UKIP earthquake last week.
Where next? The Lib Dems are finished on immigration. Labour are miles behind the curve, trying to shift the debate to the cost of living whilst proposing trivial measures presented as reducing the threat to jobs. None of them will have any effect on the scale of immigration.
The Conservatives have been unlucky. A major effort to reduce non-EU immigration has borne a good deal of fruit but not yet enough. Meanwhile, they have been knocked sideways by a doubling of net migration from the EU that now approaches half the total.
We believe that EU migration from Eastern Europe, Romania and Bulgaria, and southern Europe will continue at least into the medium term. It follows that action must be taken to control it. Measures to deter benefit tourism are fully justified but most European migrants come here to work and will continue to do so. This may be evidence of a growing UK economy but these mainly low paid eastern European workers add little or nothing to our wealth per head, while adding substantially to the problems of overcrowding.
The public are not stupid. They will see that measures addressed only to benefit tourism are just camouflage and they will demand practical steps that will have a serious impact on numbers, both from the EU and beyond. That is where the true debate must now focus and it brings us back to the tension between staying in the EU and control of our borders. The government must now find allies in Europe to take forward proposals on this front. Given the election results in other EU countries, this may not be as lonely a task as it might have seemed in the past.