Cameron sells Britain to the Indians

The PM softens his stance on immigration to encourage more skilled migrants from the subcontinent.

David Cameron has used a trip to India to promote British universities to potential applicants, assuring workers at Hindustan Unilever that there is "no limit" on the number of Indian students who can come to Britain. The promise is, however, conditional on a basic English qualification and the offer of a place.

The announcement is merely a restatement of existing policy, but underscores the difficulty the government is having reconciling two opposing aims.

On the one hand, it is trying to reduce immigration to the UK. Problematically, the target it has set itself — reducing net migration to below 100,000 people per year — is one it can't really affect directly. Around a third of net migration to the UK is made up of EU citizens, whose freedom of movement cannot legally be impaired. The most recent statistics available show a net inward migration of 76,000 EU citizens, against a total net migration of 166,000 people.

Similarly, one of the biggest downward pressures in net migration to the UK is emigration of British citizens. 151,000 British citizens left the UK in the year ending March 2012, and just 73,000 arrived in the same year. For opponents of migration who genuinely believe Britain is "full", encouraging British emigration may be a sensible proposal to reduce net migration; but for those with more nebulous concerns about "culture clashes", it's the last thing they would want.

Those intractable sources of migration increase the pressure for the government to use the only policy levers it does have: those affecting migration from non-EU countries. That is why, for instance, the Home Office launched an actual war on marriage on Valentine's day, arresting people in the registry office for "sham" marriages:

 

 

(Presumably those who thought same sex marriage was an assault on the institution will be speaking up about this literal assault shortly)

Similar pressure has been brought to bear on businesses wanting to hand out visas for work, and on students wanting to come to Britain to study. Even the American director of economics at Oxford University's Smith School finds himself at the behest of a British regime which is less than welcoming, prompting a letter to the Financial Times calling on David Cameron to "make good on the recent promise you made at Davos that 'Britain is back open for business'."

The problem is that, even as these last few avenues by which the government can control the rate of migration are squeezed as tightly as they can be, the economic situation is also making it painfully clear that they should be as wide-open as possible.

The only economic argument against immigration which holds any water is that low-skilled migration may depress the wages of the worst off in Britain, even as it boosts output overall. Such an argument leaves open the question of why the proper response to that isn't redistribution rather than restriction (as well as the more philosophical question of why it's valid to value some people's quality of life over others' based just on where they happened to be born), but even taken at face value, it says nothing about the virtues of restricting "high skilled" immigration.

And so, faced with a rather urgent need to boost the productive capacity of Britain, Cameron has started emphasising that latter aim. No longer is he telling potential overseas students "don't come here, it's cold and wet and you probably won't get any face-to-face teaching anyway"; instead, the UK as a source of high-quality learning and potential business investment gets touted on an overseas trip.

(There is also, of course, the fact that an influx of overseas students will do much to tide over the funding crisis in UK universities, as those students are some of the few who pay more than their education costs).

So don't be fooled into thinking that a mere "restatement" of policy is no new news. If it really does indicate the Government shifting its priorities from ensuring that "Britain is closed" to finally using immigration policy to boost the economy, it could be the biggest story of the week.

David Cameron travels on the Dehli Metro during his last visit, in 2006. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”