Thursday 29 September 2011
The Left is rewriting Britain's immigration history
The last Labour government threw open the borders well before Poland joined the European Union
By Philip Johnston
'We got it wrong”. If this is not quite the slogan for Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool, it is the message the leadership wants the public to hear, though without having to apologise for the mistakes made by the last government. What they really mean by this phoney self-flagellation is this: if we spent too much, it was with the best of intentions; if we borrowed too much, well so did everyone else; if the economy went down the pan, blame the bankers.
And as for immigration – it was all the fault of the Poles. “I think we underestimated the level of immigration from Poland which had a big effect on people,” said Ed Miliband.
But hang on a second. Labour came to office in 1997 and Poland did not join the EU until 2004. Yet whereas in 1996, net immigration to the UK was 40,000, by 2003 it was 150,000. It is now about 250,000. As even a cursory glance at immigration graphs will show, the beginnings of this rapid rise long predated the accession to the EU of the former Soviet bloc countries of eastern Europe.
True, the figure rose again after the Poles joined and the Labour government decided in its wisdom to allow the new arrivals to come and work in Britain, even though it could have denied them access for up to seven years – as Germany and France did. Whitehall officials estimated that only 13,000 workers from the East would come looking for jobs; in the event it was half a million, which makes even Treasury growth forecasts look like a paragon of accuracy.
But the fact remains that net immigration had almost quadrupled before the enlargement of the EU. Mr Miliband’s mea culpa is, therefore, just so much hot air. He is trying to give the impression that apart from under-estimating the influx from Poland and the other new members, it was really all beyond Labour’s control.
In fact, the last Labour government did more than “get it wrong” on immigration: either wilfully or recklessly, it ripped up a national consensus that had prevailed since the early 1970s. Next month, in fact, sees the 40th anniversary of one of the most seminal pieces of legislation of the post-war years, the 1971 Immigration Act.
It was fashioned to take the heat out of an incendiary political debate over levels of immigration that were far smaller than anything we are seeing today. The issue had exploded in the late 1960s with Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech and his subsequent dismissal from the shadow cabinet by Edward Heath.
But the Tories could not evade a subject that was causing deep disquiet in the country and when Heath took office in 1970 it was on a promise to reduce significantly the number of people coming from what was then called the New Commonwealth, essentially the Indian sub-continent, for whom there had previously been free admission to the UK.
When the Immigration Bill received its second reading in the Commons on March 8 1971, Reginald Maudling, the Home Secretary, said: “If we are to get progress in community relations, we must give assurance to the people who were already here before the large wave of immigration that this will be the end and that there will be no further large-scale immigration.”
The controls introduced by the Act put an end to mass immigration. From that point on until the mid-1990s, net immigration to the UK ran consistently around or below 50,000 per annum.
This was a level that secured widespread public approval; and even if a few fringe parties continued to bang on about it, immigration was no longer a mainstream political issue, The 1987 Conservative manifesto’s entry amounted to just a few sentences and read: “Immigration for settlement is now at its lowest level since control of Commonwealth immigration first began in 1962. Firm but fair immigration controls are essential for harmonious and improving community relations.”
By 2005, however, the Tories were accusing the government of “losing control of the borders” and promising new limits, quotas and frontier checks. “We need to ensure that immigration is effectively managed, in the interests of all Britons, old and new,” said the manifesto – echoing the words used by Maudling in 1971.
So, Labour did more than simply “get it wrong”. It undermined the fundamental basis of the 1971 settlement, which was to ensure that immigration did not become a source of friction within communities, as it clearly has done once more. Politicians have always felt it necessary to emphasise the economic benefits of immigration, even though a House of Lords committee showed these to be a myth.
But they often shy away from discussing its social significance – the impact on communities of a rapidly changing demography about which Maudling spoke 40 years ago.
For the first time since the Norman Conquest, the population is growing primarily because of immigration. This has had a significant impact on schools and hospitals, on infrastructure and housing, especially in London and the South-East, where most immigrants settle.
None of this was planned for. Moreover, despite a recent fall in emigration, far more British people are departing these shores than are returning after a period abroad. So the ethnic mix of the country is changing faster than at any time in our history.
All this happened without any discussion; nobody was asked at an election to support a new policy to replace the 1971 Act. When, in 2001, the Tories tried to get a national debate going they were howled down as racists.
Now the best the Labour leader can come up with is that his party “got it wrong.” So, that’s all right then.