Immigration and consent

Three decades of empty promises

Artillery Row

You will have noticed the new clamour from journalists, commentators and politicians to explain that increased immigration is now not a matter of if, but when. Britain will have to move past its Brexit-era resistance, we are told, and embrace mass immigration if it is to see its way through its post-Covid, energy-crisis challenges. Be it in haulage, hospitality or healthcare, without opening up access to foreign workers, Britain can only face a bleak future of economic stagnation.

The strange thing is, mass immigration has been government policy for thirty years. Through that time, immigration has increased to historically unknown levels with no material attempt to restrict it. That immigration has transformed Britain. In 1991, around 7 per cent of people living in Britain were born abroad. In 2021, that share had risen to 14.5 per cent. For economic and social reasons, new immigrants often concentrate in particular areas. So these national figures give only a limited sense of the change many places have seen, often with stresses on housing, infrastructure and community relations.

It is here that the abandoned promises began

Yet there’s a certain shyness about recognising that mass immigration has been the norm, because over those thirty years it has been pursued entirely without public consent.

It is not so much that the public were never asked to support increased immigration: they were routinely asked if they wanted immigration to be restricted, and they supported that policy at every election. No government has been elected in Britain with anything other than a mandate to control immigration below its prevailing level. Yet for thirty years, the pattern has persisted: once elected on this mandate, governments pursued a policy of sustaining and increasing immigration.

From today, the 1990s seems a more innocent time, but it is here that the abandoned promises began. The end of the Cold War and increased globalisation triggered changes in migration patterns the world over. In 1992, in its election manifesto, the Major government noted the consequent rise in refugee claims from 5,000 a year to 45,000. It promised tough measures to get the situation under control. But what measures were taken did little to stem the tide. 

Net migration, which had averaged 17,000 across the preceding decade, rose quickly to average 51,000 from 1993 to 1997. In 1997, the Major government was replaced by Labour in a landslide election victory. By that time, the annual number of new arrivals was getting above 300,000 — levels not seen since the 1950s boom in Commonwealth immigration.

Keen to reassure Middle England that it would shelter their communities from unexpected change, Labour observed that “every country must have firm control over immigration”, and promised “Britain is no exception”. On asylum and refugee claims, Labour offered further reassurance: “we will ensure swift and fair decisions on whether someone can stay or go, control unscrupulous immigration advisors and crack down on the fraudulent use of birth certificates”. The many millions of new voters turning up to put Blair into office could reasonably have expected a decline from the recent high levels of immigration. 

In office, Labour let immigration explode. Net migration across the next four years hit an unprecedented 160,000 a year. Beneath the net figure, the number of new arrivals to Britain hit the (also unprecedented) 400,000s in 1999 for the first time on record. Seeking a fresh mandate in 2001, Blair announced plans “for a tighter regime for processing people seeking to settle in Britain”, although he conceded “some economic immigration … was necessary”. Over the next four years, net migration set new records, averaging 208,000 a year. New arrivals went past 500,000 in 2002.

In 2005, Labour was still entering elections in reassurance mode, promising a points-based system and that “only skilled workers [will be] allowed to settle long-term in the UK, with English language tests for everyone who wants to stay permanently and an end to chain migration”. Through the next five years, net migration averaged 250,000 and new arrivals continued in the 500,000s despite one of the sharpest recessions in British history.

Is the party line really that one more heave ought to do it?

Cameron’s Conservatives were the largest party after the 2010 election and they promised to “take net migration back to the levels of the 1990s — tens of thousands a year, not hundreds of thousands”. Any guess what happened? Net migration over five years averaged 247,000, whilst new arrivals passed 600,000 in 2014. Seeking re-election, the Tories reiterated their “tens of thousands pledge” in 2015 and again under Theresa May in 2017. Across the four year period of these governments, net migration averaged 251,000 a year. Taking back control, in 2019 Boris Johnson quietly dropped the “tens of thousands” commitment after nine years of no serious attempt to meet it. In its place, his manifesto made a promise of “fewer low-skilled migrants and overall numbers will come down”.

After decades of governments promising migration restriction whilst presiding over acceleration, Covid probably did see some falling back — but only for a few months. The latest ONS data estimate even the year ending June 2021 — including the second lockdown — had net migration at 239,000. Home Office visa data has more than one million people granted the right to come to Britain in the 12 months to March of this year, far above previous levels. It seems unavoidable that despite manifesto promises the Conservative government elected by a landslide in 2019 will do nothing to change the mass immigration we’ve seen since the 1990s. Both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak talk a lot about the boats carrying illegal migrants across the channel, but very little about the much larger flows of legal immigration.

Are British governments sincere in their repeated promises to restrict immigration, but entirely incompetent in delivering upon those promises? Whilst incompetence does seem to be a routine feature of modern British governance, the alternative explanation seems more likely: that governments knew that public support wasn’t there for what had become a consensus in Westminster, and so they lied again and again whilst pursuing a policy which is transforming Britain.

Between elections, in today’s clamour for further increases in immigration we are told that it is essential for economic growth. If that’s so obviously the case, why has this argument so rarely been made by a current or prospective Prime Minister at the time of a general election? Then again, if it is the case: why have the past decades of unprecedented immigration coincided with a near-collapse of economic growth? Why haven’t the past 20 years of half a million or more foreign arrivals every year already taken us on the path to productivity and prosperity? Is the party line really that one more heave ought to do it? Perhaps an open, honest conversation with the public — just for once — might subject these claims to the scrutiny they clearly deserve.

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