It must be local election time. The garden is sprouting, the birds in the garden are nesting, and David Cameron is playing the race card.
Of course, being Cameron, he’s doing it in a relatively subtle way – not for nothing was he known as “Satan” in his days in public relations. But the speech that he is due to make later today is a classic piece of mythmaking. Let’s deconstruct what he is due to say:
But there was something else we heard on the doorstep – and it was this: “We are concerned about the levels of immigration in our country … but we are fed up of hearing politicians talk tough but do nothing.” Here, again, we are determined to be different.
Now, immigration is a hugely emotive subject … and it’s a debate too often in the past shaped by assertions rather than substantive arguments. We’ve all heard them. The assertion that mass immigration is an unalloyed good and that controlling it is economic madness … the view that Britain is a soft touch and immigrants are out to take whatever they can get. I believe the role of politicians is to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably.
This is the PR man’s disclaimer – the smooth Etonian’s version of “I’m not a racist but …” He’s also talking nonsense when he suggests that discussion of immigration is beyond the pale – something that can be disproved by picking up a copy of the Daily Mail or the Daily Express on any day of the week.
This approach had damaging consequences in terms of controlling immigration … but also in terms of public debate. It created the space for extremist parties to flourish, as they could tell people that mainstream politicians weren’t listening to their concerns or doing anything about them. I remember when immigration wasn’t a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again. I want us to starve extremist parties of the oxygen of public anxiety they thrive on and extinguish them once and for all.
Nonsense. Cameron was two years old when Enoch Powell made his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968. As far as the oxygen of publicity is concerned, it’s difficult to see how a speech repeating immigration myths (more of which in a moment) is starving extremist parties of space; it’s in fact legitimising and taking over their positions.
or too long, immigration has been too high. Between 1997 and 2009, 2.2 million more people came to live in this country than left to live abroad. That’s the largest influx of people Britain has ever had … and it has placed real pressures on communities up and down the country. Not just pressures on schools, housing and healthcare – though those have been serious … but social pressures too. Because real communities aren’t just collections of public service users living in the same space.Real communities are bound by common experiences … forged by friendship and conversation … knitted together by all the rituals of the neighbourhood, from the school run to the chat down the pub. And these bonds can take time. So real integration takes time.
That’s why, when there have been significant numbers of new people arriving in neighbourhoods … perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there … on occasions not really wanting or even willing to integrate … that has created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods.
This has been the experience for many people in our country – and I believe it is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it and address it.
This is where some of the serious mythmaking begins. First, the belief that immigration is an economic drain. It’s actually nonsense – there is NO evidence that immigration has created pressure on services; in fact the evidence shows that immigrants are less likely to use public services – indeed that they contribute substantially more in taxes than they cost the public purse, helping to sustain our pensioners and health service. And has he comes close to acknowledging elsewhere in the speech, many of our vital services, including the NHS, employ large numbers of immigrants to fill jobs that can’t be filled bylocal people. And as far as integration is concerned, it ought to be obvious – even to an old Etonian who knows nothing of life outside his privileged bubble – that it’s a two-way street. The history of immigration to this country is about people wanting to integrate but forced into ghettoes – physical and social – by racism. Ostracism and daily threats of violence are the texture of life among people of non-white, non-British backgrounds, and lecturing victims on accommodating the needs of the bullies is an inherently racist act.
I can see why this argument is made. Since 1997, the number of people in work in our economy has gone up by some 2.5 million. And of this increase, around 75% was accounted for by foreign-born workers … many of whom were employed to clean offices, serve in restaurants or work on building sites. At the same time we have had persistently, eye-wateringly high numbers of British born people stuck on welfare.
But let’s be clear about what our conclusions should be from this. This is not a case of ‘immigrants coming over here and taking our jobs’. The fact is – except perhaps in the very short-term – there are not a fixed number of jobs in our economy. If one hundred migrant workers come into the country, they don’t simply displace job opportunities for a hundred British citizens. Of course they take up vacancies that are available, but they also come and create wealth and new jobs.
The real issue is this: migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left wide open by a welfare system that for years has paid British people not to work. That’s where the blame lies – at the door of our woeful welfare system, and the last government who comprehensively failed to reform it.
So immigration and welfare reform are two sides of the same coin. Put simply, we will never control immigration properly unless we tackle welfare dependency. That’s another powerful reason why this government is undertaking the biggest shake-up of the welfare system for generations … making sure that work will always pay … and ending the option of living a life on the dole when a life in work is possible.
This is the most pernicious, disgraceful passage of all – the passage that puts Cameron beyond the pale of decency. Cameron’s answer to people who complain about immigration – it’s the fault of the workshy poor. Of course, the workshy poor is a myth; life for those on benefits has become harder and harder in recent years, and a party which is quite happy to use the sacking of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers as an economic tool really needs to think quite carefully before attaching casual labels to those on benefits.
In summary, it’s a disgraceful speech. Cynical, dishonest, economically illiterate, based on the repetition of social myths wholly unsupported by evidence, with that particular brand of smooth mendacity that characterises Cameron’s political style.
In other words, it’s what Tories do at election time.