The PM’s claim to have created three million British jobs is a grave deceit, says Fraser Nelson. Strip out immigrants from the picture, and Labour has barely dented the problem of British worklessness. Over to you, Mr Cameron
If there were to be a British Statue of Liberty, it should be erected at Victoria coach station in London. For it is here that most of the tired, poor, huddled masses of Eastern Europeans have arrived seeking what Michael Howard once called the ‘British dream’. The influx of the last ten years has been the largest in Britain’s history, changing the country for ever. Immigrants now make up a ninth of our population, produce a fifth of our babies and fill (or create) most of our new jobs. It’s a situation that causes concern across the board. On Monday an all-party group of MPs and peers, including Frank Field, made a desperate plea for ‘balanced migration’ — meaning that immigration should be linked to the number of people leaving the country. They also suggested an annual limit of up to 20,000 non-EU immigrants and published the results of a YouGov poll which suggests that limiting immigration would be a vote-winner for any party.
If all this immigration were the product of deliberate policy, one might indeed expect a British Statue of Liberty to be in the planning stages, as a way of commemorating how Britain, in just a few years, became almost as much of an immigrant country as the United States (an eighth of its population is immigrant). Yet the truth is that this social transformation pretty much happened by accident. Not so much a ‘British dream’, as what happened when ministers were asleep. The migration boom started long before those who govern us realised what was happening. The benefits were gratefully reaped, the problems studiously avoided and the issue barely comprehended.
In recent months The Spectator has been assembling pieces of the statistical jigsaw to reveal the picture not only of immigration in Britain, but of the problems that the newcomers, through their industry, have inadvertently helped to cover up. For the truth is that if you strip away the hard-working new class of migrant worker, the economic history of the last ten years would have been very different. Many of the achievements which Gordon Brown boasts about can be attributed to the work of immigrants, which allowed him to avoid tackling the deeply ingrained culture of indigenous worklessness in this country that has spawned so many social afflictions.
When Labour came to power it faced a fundamental problem. A sixth of the working-age population was on out-of-work benefits: it stood to reason that unless they were found jobs the economy would not reach its full potential. Yet forcing people off benefits is the toughest task in politics, as Tony Blair found out when his campaign to ‘end welfare as we know it’ collapsed within two years. By then, the millennial wave of global population mobility had started — and a far quicker, easier and cheaper fix to Britain’s labour shortage had started climbing off the coaches at Victoria station and its equivalents.
While countries like France pushed back the new tide of immigrants (it has fewer now than it did ten years ago), Gordon Brown welcomed them with open arms — and went on to rely upon them to an extent that he has never properly acknowledged. Take, for example, the Prime Minister’s mantra-like boast that he has ‘created three million new jobs’. The Statistics Commission discloses that 68 per cent of this increase can be attributed to immigrants. These new jobs were filled: but not by Britons.
Even this figure includes pensioners returning to work. Narrow the field to working-age people, and immigrants account for 82 per cent of the job increases. According to Office for National Statistics information obtained by The Spectator there were only 300,000 more UK-born working-aged people in employment in June 2007 than there were in June 1997: a tenth of Mr Brown’s oft-repeated figure.
And there is yet another layer to peel back: the Prime Minister’s substantial expansion of the public sector at huge expense. Strip away the growth of the state-as-employer and the number of UK-born employed actually fell over the decade — from 18.1 million in June 1997 to 18.0 million in June 2007, according to the ONS Labour Force Survey. In truth, the only net job creation in Britain since Mr Brown moved into government has been produced by the hard work of immigrants, pensioners and public-sector workers.
The corollary is that shockingly little progress has been made with the great mass of home-grown British unemployed. Official figures provided to The Spectator show that there were 5.1 million people on out-of-work benefits when Labour took office. As of last February, that figure had fallen by just 867,000 — not much to show for what Mr Brown likes to describe as the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth in a century. In a decade, he made less progress than the Thatcher government did between 1987 and 1990, when the comparable jobless count fell by 895,000.
It was Ken Livingstone who once complained that in all the time he was mayor he had never been served a cup of coffee by a Londoner. The capital is, as the current mayor says, a world city, and Rome to the empire of the globalised world. A full third of its citizens are immigrants, a greater proportion even than in New York City. But the grim fact remains that there are still 700,000 Londoners on benefits. Mr Livingstone’s cup of coffee conundrum illustrates perfectly Mr Brown’s failure to match the country’s unemployed to the country’s vacancies. So perhaps it was guilt which led Mr Brown to adopt his curious and mercifully shortlived slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers’ — given that the Prime Minister, a demon for statistical knowledge, would have known perfectly well that this motto is the precise opposite of what has happened. Foreign workers have taken most of the new ‘British jobs’.
Immigration is always a live political issue. Much less attention is paid to a trend which, in truth, is no less striking: the number of British workers seeking foreign jobs. The quiet path out of Britain starts with the queues to the various emigration fairs popping up around the country, where the governments of Canada and Australia set out their stalls to lure Brits with the right skills. One company is preparing for an exhibition at Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool next month with the slogan: ‘Over 200,000 skilled workers and professionals turned their backs on the UK and left for good last year to start a new life abroad’. It is all true.
Settling the colonies has, of course, been a part of our island story since Jacobean times — but the tradition has been unexpectedly rekindled in modified form under Labour. When the party came to power, net emigration of British nationals ran at just 59,000 per annum, but by 2006 this figure had shot up to 126,000. What should alarm ministers is the calibre of the people paying £8 a ticket to attend these emigration exhibitions: these are the workers with precisely the skills presently being supplied by immigrants. Not the very rich, for whom Britain is still an agreeable place, but those who use their skills as a passport out of this country.
Annoyingly, for supporters of immigration like myself, the economic case for it is by no means emphatic. As the House of Lords demonstrated in its seminal report on the effect of immigration, there is no proof either way. The Home Office argues that, through their tax and spending, immigrants contribute £2.5 billion more in taxes than they cost in public services. Professor Robert Rowthorn of Cambridge University has shown how this utterly changes depending on what’s included in the calculation. Add the full costs of UK citizenship, including a share of defence spending, a
nd it’s a £5.6 billion loss. Restrict it to what immigrants (and not their children) directly consume and you have the Home Office’s £2.5 billion figure.
There is no doubt that mass immigration has its losers, and that they vote. One of the few times I have seen David Cameron lost for words was when Eileen McCloy, a Glaswegian mother who had come down to London to hear him talk, asked him what he could do to help her husband, a joiner, who had been put out of work by Polish competitors who worked for £6 an hour. Mr Cameron told her about his plan for an Australian points-based system to bring order to immigration, but admitted that, under European Union law, this would not apply to Poles. He had no answer for her.
Many around Mr Cameron still recoil at the memory of Mr Howard’s 2005 election campaign slogan, ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.’ As one shadow minister put it, ‘It made us sound as if we were up for a bit of racism.’ Since Mr Cameron gave a speech on the subject in October last year — itself seen as an act of daring — the issue has gone away temporarily. Some, like George Osborne, believe it’s best left alone and that the voters will instinctively trust the Tories to be sensible on immigration.
When the general election is finally called, Mr Cameron will meet many more people like Mrs McCloy on the campaign trail. For the last three years immigration has ranked consistently among the public’s principal concerns, even if the issue is regarded as the third rail in Westminster. Like the national debt and government spending, immigration may well spiral out of control, and present Mr Cameron with another huge policy headache if he becomes prime minister.
Forty years after Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, the taboo on discussing immigration is slowly being lifted. Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, made his contribution on Tuesday. He, too, is proposing an Australian-based points system and is taking a chance, to say the least, by decreeing what skills British companies need. The eclectic mix of skills selected by his advisory committee, chaired by Professor David Metcalf from the LSE, included ballet-dancing, sheep-shearing, maths-teaching and engineering. The original Michael Howard policy, a points-based system for non-Europeans, has now been adopted — so Mr Cameron will have to go further if he wants to be distinctive. Given how quickly the debate is changing, fresh thinking is needed.
And this is where — not for the first time — Frank Field steps in. Though a Labour MP, Mr Field is influential among Tories. In joining forces with the former Tory defence spokesman Nicholas Soames and Sir Andrew Green, the dogged founder of MigrationWatch, he has ensured his message carries real weight. And it sounds like plain common sense. There is no real economic benefit to immigration, they argue — so why go through the social upheaval? What primarily motivates Mr Field is concern that the ready supply of cheap foreign labour has allowed companies to avoid training Brits.
At the back of Mr Cameron’s mind will be the fear that the immigration debate — which Westminster has had on ‘mute’ for years — may soon start blaring. Britain has absorbed so many people in the last decade because there were, broadly speaking, enough jobs for those who wanted them. Now the economic tide is turning, there will be more competition for a dwindling number of vacancies. The remarkable tolerance Britain has shown to these immigrants may be tested. Politicians will have to respond.
While the economic downturn will deter some prospective immigrants and send others looking for work elsewhere, it won’t deter the majority. Europeans have never accounted for more than a third of immigrants to Britain. Those from the subcontinent and the Third World are unlikely to return home even if the UK economy sinks.
The immigration debate is always mutating. At first it was about deportation, then bogus asylum seekers. Then it focused upon the Poles, Czechs, Latvians and Lithuanians — probably the best group of immigrants any country could wish for. Should the supply of Eastern Europeans diminish, as the supply of Irish workers eventually did, the nature of the immigration debate will likely shift once again. It may turn once again, to the ‘family reunification’ candidates, students and visa-seekers who account for most immigration.
In 1946 the Polish Resettlement Corps was set up to help demobilised Poles find jobs and settle in Britain. It is strange to think this is perhaps the last time that a sophisticated immigrant integration project was seriously mounted. Luckily for Mr Brown, the boom years ensured that immigration essentially took care of itself as an issue. Unluckily for Mr Cameron, the economic bust creates an entirely different and more challenging context. He may find himself having that much-delayed conversation with the nation about — to be blunt — how many to let in. But he will, at least, find it’s a debate the nation is ready for.