So why is it that ministers have been so very bad at communicating this (benefits of immigration - LT. I must admit I thought they talked of nothing else)? I wonder because I wrote the landmark speech given by then immigration minister Barbara Roche in September 2000, calling for a loosening of controls. It marked a major shift from the policy of previous governments: from 1971 onwards, only foreigners joining relatives already in the UK had been permitted to settle here.
That speech was based largely on a report by the Performance and Innovation Unit, Tony Blair's Cabinet Office think-tank. The PIU's reports were legendarily tedious within Whitehall but their big immigration report was surrounded by an unusual air of both anticipation and secrecy.
Drafts were handed out in summer 2000 only with extreme reluctance: there was a paranoia about it reaching the media. Eventually published in January 2001, the innocuously labelled "RDS Occasional Paper no. 67", "Migration: an economic and social analysis" focused heavily on the labour market case.
But the earlier drafts I saw also included a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural. I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended - even if this wasn't its main purpose - to rub the Right's nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. That seemed to me to be a manoeuvre too far.
Ministers were very nervous about the whole thing. For despite Roche's keenness to make her big speech and to be upfront, there was a reluctance elsewhere in government to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour's core white working-class vote. This shone through even in the published report: the "social outcomes" it talks about are solely those for immigrants. And this first-term immigration policy got no mention among the platitudes on the subject in Labour's 1997 manifesto, headed Faster, Firmer, Fairer.
The results were dramatic. In 1995, 55,000 foreigners were granted the right to settle in the UK. By 2005 that had risen to 179,000; last year, with immigration falling thanks to the recession, it was 148,000. In addition, hundreds of thousands of migrants have come from the new EU member states since 2004, most requiring neither visas nor permission to work or settle. The UK welcomed an estimated net 1.5 million immigrants in the decade to 2008.
Part by accident, part by design, the Government had created its longed-for immigration boom. But ministers wouldn't talk about it. In part they probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while ministers might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn't necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men's clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.
In part, too, it would have been just too metropolitan an argument to make in such places: London was the real model. Roche was unusual in that she was a London MP, herself of east European Jewish stock. But Labour ministers elsewhere tend studiously to avoid ever mentioning London. Meanwhile, the capital's capacity to absorb new immigrants depends in large part on its economic vitality and variety. There's not a lot of that in, say, south Yorkshire. And so ministers lost their nerve.
I hope it's not too late now, post-Question Time, for London to make the case for migration.
And here's his backtracking :
Somehow this has become distorted by excitable Right-wing newspaper columnists into being a "plot" to make Britain multicultural. There was no plot. I've worked closely with Ms Roche and Jack Straw and they are both decent, honourable people whom I respect (not something I'd say for many politicians). What's more, both were robust on immigration when they needed to be: Straw had driven through a tough Immigration and Asylum Act in 1999 and Roche had braved particularly cruel flak from the Left over asylum seekers.
Rather, my sense was that the nervousness came primarily from No 10. According to my notes of one meeting in mid-July 2000, held at the PIU's offices in Admiralty Arch, there was a debate about whether the report should be published by the PIU or by the Home Office: the PIU didn't think the Prime Minister wanted his "prints" on it. From Tony Blair, the man who took us to war in Iraq on a lie - and who later fired the faithful Roche on a whim, months before she lost her seat thanks to the war - I don't find that particularly surprising.
Perhaps the lesson of this row is just how hard it still is to have any sensible debate about immigration. The Right see plots everywhere and will hyperventilate at the drop of a chapati: to judge by some of the rubbish published in the past few days, it's frankly not hard to see why ministers were nervous. The Left, however, will immediately accuse anyone who raises immigration as an issue as "playing the race card" - as the Government has on several occasions over the past decade.
Both sides need to grow up.
A creditable effort, but that moggy still won't quite get back in the bag. You can call it a 'plot' or not, but I don't think the label matters. It's not a smoking gun as in proof of a conspiracy - cos there ain't one. You don't need a conspiracy when people think alike. But ...
a) this isn't exactly a new phenomenon. I wish I could find the Guardian piece from four or five years back - I think in the days when Michael Howard led the Tories and I think written by Peter Preston, which celebrated an area of multicultural London (can't remember where - South-East?) as a triumph over the Right - in the sense of 'you've lost, it's too late - that old culture - and those old people - has gone for ever, you can't ever bring it - or them - back'.
And of course he's quite right - as is the anonymous PIU author who spoke of rendering the arguments out of date. How can even a moderate argue that successful mass immigration is possible with assimilation into a self-confident host culture (as in the USA up to the mid-70s) when there's nothing left to assimilate to. What host culture is left in East London or Woolwich?
b) it's not a conspiracy as in a cunning plan put together by the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons or the Zionists. It's what happens when a culture collapses and is replaced by another culture - the triumph of the sixties cultural revolutionaries, many of whose younger adherents wouldn't even recognise themselves as such. Hasn't Britain always been like this ?
I happen to think that 'our' current culture is (along with 'our' current fertility) unsustainable in every sense, and sooner or later will be shown by events (probably not very nice ones) to be so.
At which point our rulers (and their children) will discover that the USA (or perhaps New Zealand) isn't the greatest evil on the planet after all, and get on the planes out.
A wee postcript. I get peeved with the occasional 'blood on the streets' stuff some rightie commenters post. Imagine my surprise to see leftie Dave Osler post this apocalyptic vision, way beyond Enoch Powell's terse classical allusion, on Liberal Conspiracy. Dave, if it's so good, why's it so bad ?
UPDATE - the Magna Mater Melanie applies the traditional shoeing and tells it like it is :
Let me spell this out again very slowly.
The neo-Nazi British National Party now has two MEPs, one million votes and a claim to a place in the legitimate political life of Britain principally because a very significant proportion of the electorate believe that Britain’s culture and identity are being steadily transformed by mass immigration...
Don't worry, the Tories'll fix it !
There could scarcely be a more profound abuse of the democratic process than to set out to destroy a nation’s demographic and cultural identity through a conscious deception of the people of that nation. There could hardly be a more worthy issue for the Conservative party to leap upon. Yet the Tories’ reaction so far has been muted...You amaze me. Despite having many decent people, the Cameronians are in charge. They're not called Blue Labour for nowt. Don't expect the BNP to vanish the way the National Front did after 1979.
Melanie also notes the backtracking in Trying To Stuff The Cat Back Into The Bag.