In 1887, Captain JCR Colomb, the very Conservative MP for Bow and Bromley in east London, asked a question of fellow countrymen: "What states of the world, other than Great Britain, permit the immigration of destitute aliens without restriction?" Colomb was very much a man of that age – but born into ours, he might have vented his spleen below the line on Mail Online or the Telegraph's website. Can it be, he asked, that "Her Majesty's Government is prevented by any treaty obligations from making such regulations as shall put a stop to the free importation of destitute aliens into the United Kingdom?
The captain was on to something. There followed letters to the Times condemning the foreigners "replacing English workers and driving to despair men, women and children of our blood". Foreigners, Jewish migrants in this case, were blamed for taking jobs and driving up rents, and a society formed: the Association for Preventing the Immigration of Destitute Aliens. MigrationWatch looms like a heavy raincloud now. But it was not the first of its kind.
And the moral is that none of what we have heard, of what we will hear this week – when full rights of EU movement are granted to Romanians and Bulgarians – is new. It is like The Mousetrap: the actors change, some grow old and die, but the show goes on and the script is much the same.
These new rights of movement for Romanians and Bulgarians will dominate the immigration discourse, for at least the first quarter of 2014. Right now, these freedoms are just hours old. No one can say with confidence what is going to happen. But that won't prevent the Colombites of our time evoking the worst-case scenario, and with an election next year, expect discussion on two levels. Statisticians, academics, virtuous researchers and economists will apply what they know to produce sober analysis. And the Colombites, playing to the cheap seats, will ignore them.
That is what they did prior to the removal of those controls on 1 January, with the right clinging doggedly to the MigrationWatch prediction that Romanian and Bulgarian immigration might add between 30,000 and 70,000 to the UK population each year for five years. Some Colombites went further. The Conservative MP Philip Hollobone predicted the number of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK could triple to 425,000 in two years.
Much more sensible, but consequently of less use to those whipping up the storm, was Mark Harper. He is the immigration minister in the coalition government that has pledged to crack down on immigration, and he said claims of a mass influx were almost certainly overblown. There will be new arrivals. There will undoubtedly be new pressures. But not Armageddon.
"There is a big difference with 2004, when we were the only major country not to have transitional controls and all the other big countries did," said Harper last November. "Anybody who wanted to work here legally came to the UK. There are now a range of other European countries in the eurozone, including Germany, which is an economic powerhouse that is generating jobs and creating economic growth." The minister pointed out that other countries, such as Italy and Spain, already have significant populations of Romanians and Bulgarians, and are thus more likely to attract more arrivals. His sobriety displeased the Colombites, for they countenance neither dispute or interference. MigrationWatch has warned of hordes abandoning other European countries to come to Britain. Pity Harper as he appeals for calm; derided by the Express as the "minister without a clue".
He may not last, for level-headedness and immigration policy sit uneasily. His boss, the home secretary, Theresa May, has pledged to cut the numbers of migrants entering Britain and to make life more difficult for those who reach our shores. A Home Office report leaked to the Sunday Times revealed plans to restrict the number of EU migrants to 75,000 a year. It also suggested preventing them from claiming benefits or tax credits for their first five years here.
An immigration bill due to reach the statute book in the spring will oblige private landlords to grill tenants about their immigration status. The appeals process in immigration cases will also be speeded up. As for any migrants judged to have broken the law, the rule will be deport first, hear the appeal later.
There will be, as some analysts describe it, "phantom solutions to phantom problems". Just two weeks ago the prime minister announced tough measures to stop Romanians and Bulgarians and fellow travellers claiming out-of-work benefits for the first three months. It sends a message, he said. But it is already the case. The government has figures showing how many migrants claim out-of-work benefits but seems reluctant to release them for analysis. Could that be because the figures don't support the government's brand of politicking?
At issue are people's lives, but inevitably we discuss immigration in abstract statistics. Net migration – the difference between those coming and leaving – rose to 182,000 in the year to June, up from 167,000 in the previous 12 months, and therein lies the challenge for David Cameron this new year. He has pledged to reduce that figure to 100,000 in time for next year's election. In 2012/13, the UK Border Agency, in its last year as a standalone entity, decided 2.6m visa applications and 800,000 applications from people seeking to remain in the UK. They come from all over: India, Poland, the US and Australia. We focus on migrants from eastern Europe and the former Commonwealth countries. In fact most new immigrants to the UK come from China.
The Colombites rage, but increasingly they're estranged from the wishes of those who drive the economy, create jobs and the wealth characteristic of a capitalist market system. They are out of sync with the universities and colleges; urging them on the one hand to maximise income and then hampering their efforts to recruit sufficient foreign students to do that. The number of foreign students has apparently dropped 70,000 in two years. They are out of step with countries with whom they might trade; one minute declaring Britain open for business, the next projecting their anxieties on foreign businessfolk seeking entry through our ports and airports.
It's a given that our approach to immigration will continue to be blighted by inconsistencies. It has been for centuries. Some migrants we like: think of the young Spaniards, Italians and Greeks who have come – without public uproar – to escape austerity in their own countries. Some we do not, usually because – numbers aside – their social and cultural differences require accommodation. And some we will like in time as they become part of the fabric. As part of that cycle, many of them will be just as critical of the next wave of migrants.
The real crisis would be a Britain that migrants do not aspire to, but our drivers of immigration policy will not change: part pragmatism, part altruism, part prejudice and heavily shaped by the populist demands of boisterous democratic politics. As it was in Colomb's day, so it will be in 2014.
- This is an edited version of an article which appeared in The Guardian on January 2 2014 in a series looking at the year ahead.
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