Let's talk about immigration

Because we never do, do we?

Perhaps the most clichéd line one comes across in the intersecting worlds of politics and journalism is that immigration is "the subject no politician wants to talk about".

It's not just inaccurate but annoying. And it's most annoying when, in the midst of a discussion about immigration, a participant claims, with a straight face: ""We just don't talk about immigration." Doh!

As I noted in a Guardian piece during the election campaign last April:

The opening question of the first leaders' debate in British political history was on the subject of -- wait for it! -- immigration.

And, as I pointed out on Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live programme last night, the newspapers, led by the Mail and the Express, talk of little else -- witness this morning's cover story in the Express:

£250 a week for every migrant

As for politicians, here's a short selection of some of the most egregious, hyperbolic and populist remarks made in relation to immigration and immigrants by leading Conservative and Labour figures in recent years:

Let me take you on a journey to a foreign land -- to Britain after a second term of Tony Blair.

- William Hague's speech to the Conservative Spring Forum in March 2001

Whilst they're going through the process, the children [of asylum seekers] will be educated on the site . . . but importantly not swamping the local school.

- David Blunkett, speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in April 2002

It's not racist to impose limits on immigration

- Michael Howard's 2005 election poster, under the headline, "Are you thinking what we are thinking?"

Our [immigration] system is not fit for purpose.

- John Reid, speaking in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, May 2006

Adopt our values or stay away, says Blair

- Telegraph headline, in response to Tony Blair's speech in December 2006, telling immigrants that they had ''a duty" to integrate

. . . drawing on the talents of all to create British jobs for British workers.

- Gordon Brown's first Labour conference speech as leader of the party in September 2007

I was in Plymouth recently and a 40-year-old black man . . . said, "I came here when I was six, I've served in the Royal Navy for 30 years . . . but I'm so ashamed that we've had this out-of-control system with people abusing it so badly."

- David Cameron, speaking in the first televised leaders' debate in April 2010


These are just a small sample, off the top of my head (and don't even get me started on Phil Woolas). There are many more such examples of British politicians using ramped-up rhetoric about immigrants and immigration to fear-monger, distract and/or impress Paul Dacre. I stand by what I said on the telly last night: those people who claim that talk of immigration is "suppressed" and demand a "debate" on immigration tend to be people who hold rather negative, hostile and ill-informed views on the subject. I've yet to come across people who say: "We have to have a debate about immigration because it's so good."

But feel free to prove me wrong below the line. Ready, steady, go . . .


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.