You can tell immigration is back on the political agenda by the way
both main parties are floating ideas aimed at “toughening up” their
positions. Conservative proposals for a compulsory health check on
asylum seekers are one recent example. And from the Labour
backbenches, Stephen Byers made a speech proposing an annual limit
on new entrants to Britain that would be set by Parliament after a
These policies share common features. Neither is based on firm
evidence. Health screening is a policy solution for a non-existent
problem. The one substantive survey of the health of refugees and
asylum seekers found that only one of 6,000 people presenting at a
port of entry was carrying any serious disease. Indeed, when Sars
arrived, it was businessmen and public schoolboys returning from a
school trip who were most likely to be bringing the disease into
The Byers plan is a response to the political perception that
Britons feel that we are taking more than our fair share of
migrants and that our key public services are coming under undue
pressure. Both of these are flawed arguments. In Europe we take
fewer refugees than do many other countries, while many of our
services would collapse if it were not for overseas labour. Since
the inception of the NHS, nurses and doctors have come from
Ireland, the West Indies and India to work in Britain. As
government investment boosts the NHS over coming years, full
staffing will be based on overseas recruitment and the same may
well be true of social care.
So what is going on? Why are politicians of both sides raising the
stakes on immigration?
Both are responding to what they see happening to disaffected
portions of the working-class electorate and, in particular, the
ability of the British National Party to win council seats by
tapping into local resentment. Labour and Tory politicians want to
“signal” to these voters that their “concerns” are understood by
mainstream parties. The problem with this strategy is that voters
who want fascism will not settle for fascism-lite, they will stick
with the BNP. But they will feel their racism is more legitimate
because it is so clearly echoed by respectable politicians.
Unfounded views about migration should be challenged by our
political leaders. In a Dutch auction about who can be toughest on
those wanting to come to Britain, the centre ground of debate will
shift to the right and we will risk losing liberty and civility
from our public life.
John McTernan is a political analyst.