A Distracting Political Football
I recommend the diaries of prominent historical figures if you are interested in reading about history and its connection to immigration. These figures have witnessed interesting events and shared them with a high level of insight and a degree of candour that does not exist in official publications and academic works.
The Diaries of Dick Crossman
The three volumes recorded Crossman’s years in the frontbench of the UK Labour Party. One remarkably candid revelation he added was his party’s recent immigration law served no practical purpose and was simply a political ploy (Volume One, Page 299). He even goes so far as to say that the law will be economically damaging to the UK due to existing labour shortages and that everyone, including the prime minister, knew it. He says without imposing new restrictions on immigration, the Labour Party would have lost the upcoming election to the Conservative Party. Admittedly, the party needed to remain viable electorally and thus was forced to suggest tougher migration measures than the Conservatives. Crossman also concluded that the only way to keep racism in the UK from spreading was to control immigration.
It may surprise you to know that Crossman is not a contemporary politician, as his observations sound very like they could be said today. Crossman’s frontbench career was, in fact, in the government of Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970, and the law he was referring to was the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1968. Luckily, he was entirely correct, and since the passage of that law, racism and anti-immigration sentiment have entirely disappeared from political discourse, and immigration policy has not been a political issue for decades.
Oh, wait, sorry, I got that the wrong way around.
THE DIFFICULTY OF BEING GRANTED TO WORK IN THE UK
What I meant to say is that immigration has not stopped being a political issue ever since.
Despite decades of rhetoric and numerous laws intending to make work permits even more difficult to get, immigration is considered an issue in UK politics as it has ever been. Every government since the 1950s has introduced new laws to restrict immigration further, and none of these laws was simply window dressing. All included significant new layers of bureaucracy and very harsh conditions. And yet the hunger for more controls on immigration was never satisfied. So it is worth asking whether immigration policy is something best ignored completely since nothing is ever quite enough for opponents.
Reason #1 for Complexities in Immigration
One reason immigration is more complicated than other areas of government business is that there are only wrong answers. And, the only way to have an immigration system that doesn’t cause misery to all those who interact with it is not to have one. Even successful applicants only get there after being forced to fork out a small fortune for the privilege of jumping through the countless very narrow hoops the Home Office puts in front of them. At the same time, every refusal is inevitably someone’s dream being crushed.
Reason #2 for Complexities in Immigration
Another reason immigration can be so tricky is that it can expose other issues with how the country is governed. If finding homes for migrants is proving difficult, your country likely has problems with its housing and planning system. Suppose colleges and language schools struggle to teach migrants good language skills to enter the workforce. In that case, there is likely a problem with your country’s education system and its ability to retrain people. If the government cannot figure out a solution to these issues, then it is likely that your country’s political class is not of the highest quality, and so on.
What does the British public want?
The policies to restrict immigration are often not only bad for migrants and the economy, but they also do not even reflect what voters in the UK want. Whenever opinion pollsters, media organisations, and academics ask people what they want from migrants, the results consistently show that a majority want people coming to the UK to learn English, integrate into society, and put down roots. And yet the government’s policies for decades have made that not only more complicated but a less attractive prospect.
The ease of getting a UK visa is basically in proportion to how long each visa allows you to stay, with a temporary work visa being among the easiest to obtain. Holders of these transitory visas are, by definition, going to be less likely to want to settle in the UK, as they are only going to be in the UK for a short time. This is before you even get into the fact that these visas do not offer a route to settlement or allow you to bring your family with you. It is notoriously difficult for people to bring loved ones into the UK, even for British citizens. It does not take a genius to work out that it is hard to encourage people to put down roots in the UK and integrate into British society if there is a chance, they won’t be able to bring their spouse/fiancé and children with them. Similarly, those contemplating studying in the UK will be discouraged by the prospect of being turfed out as soon as a random celebrity has handed them their degree certificate, especially when they could instead go to a European or American university and be more likely to be able to stay and find a job. While it is possible to switch to a graduate visa after you have completed your studies, this only lasts for two years and cannot be extended. Even if you can find a job that will allow you to switch onto a Skilled Worker visa when your two years are up, you will still need to complete another five years before you can apply for ILR, as time spent on a student visa and/or a graduate visa does not count towards the ILR residence requirements.
Then, why do people still apply?
Despite the immense difficulty in obtaining a UK visa, tens of thousands can still do so every year. Even though the UK has left the EU, thus ending the right of citizens of EU countries to come to the UK without restrictions under the EU’s free movement policy, immigration to the UK is higher than ever. If immigration was the sensitive part of everybody’s political compass that it is claimed to be, then immigration should logically be the number one concern for UK voters right now. However, the truth is that over the last six years, the importance of restricting immigration to UK voters has gradually diminished, according to opinion polls.
There are numerous potential explanations for this. It could be that the state of the UK economy and public services has declined over the same period, leading to voters refocusing their priorities. It could be that the issue was never about the number of immigrants coming into the UK but the ability of the government to have the final say over immigration policy, which is now the case since Brexit. It could be a generational shift, with the number of people who remember the era of an ethnically homogenous Britain decreasing and the number of adults who have grown up in a multicultural society increasing yearly. It could be that newspapers do not run as many stories presenting immigration as a bad thing as they used to. Or it could be something else entirely. Or some combination of all of the above. The point is that hostility to immigration amongst the UK public is not linked to the actual number of people coming into the UK.
The lesson from this is that reducing immigration will not magically revive the UK’s ailing public services or increase house-building. It won’t sort out the problems with the education system, the health service, or anything else in the public realm. It won’t solve the problem of low pay and exploitative employers. And it certainly won’t solve the problem of having a political class that has run out of ideas about how to fix the UK’s problems. So maybe it is about time that immigration stopped being used as a political football to distract from other issues and time to confront the actual problems that get blamed on immigration.
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• The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister – Richard Crossman
• Attitudes towards immigration – Survey conducted in collaboration with British Future
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