Last week the Conservative party unveiled an extremely good policy: to cut government waste to the tune of £35 billion and to pass £4 billion worth of it to the public in tax cuts. This week it unveiled two much less good ones: to set an arbitrary limit on the number of immigrants allowed to come to Britain and to withdraw from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. ‘Britain has reached a turning point,’ wrote the Conservative leader Michael Howard in a full-page advertisement in the Sunday Telegraph. ‘Our communities cannot absorb newcomers at today’s pace.’
Taken literally, Mr Howard’s statement is true. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2003 there was a net inflow of 151,000 migrants into Britain. Extrapolate from this and at some distant point in the future human beings would be standing shoulder to shoulder from Dover to Stornoway. Equally, one might extrapolate from current, falling trends in the birth rate and conclude that long before that happens there won’t be any native Britons left to worry about immigrants in any case.
Like so many other social and economic phenomena, international migration tends to be cyclical, and is closely related to the labour market. Though many might find it hard to remember now, 25 years ago we were worrying about the ‘brain drain’. Between 1973 and 1982 Britain lost a net 430,000 residents, as high taxation and mass unemployment drove them abroad. As recently as 1993 there was a net outflow of residents from Britain. The reason immigration has increased since then is largely a response to the dramatic improvement in our economy. People are coming to Britain not, as the Daily Mail would have us believe, to live it up on job-seekers’ allowance: of the 91,000 Eastern Europeans who arrived in Britain to work during the first five months following EU enlargement last May, fewer than 15 have claimed benefits.