Immigrants are taking the flak for the government's failings

David Cameron is using a sensitive and important issue purely for political advantage.

Politicians have never been good at talking about immigration. From Thatcher's concerns of being "swamped" by immigrants to Gordon Brown's “British jobs for British Workers” speech, the issue has long been embedded within a perverted political narrative- one in which migrants are characterised as leeches, sucking away at the fruits good Englishmen have bequeathed upon them.

David Cameron's speech this week did little to distance itself from this. Still tormented by the Eastleigh defeat which saw the Ukip surge trouncing the Conservatives, the Prime Minister unveiled a new set of policies assured to win back the disenchanted. And while the favourite buzzwords needed for any immigration speech were present (integration, assimilation, border controls, to name a few), he also used the opportunity to exert some of the harshest policy proposals we've seen come out of CCHQ for a while. Under the new proposals, a migrant job seeker can only receive assistance for six months, will have to face more difficult residency tests, and will have less access to the NHS without private health insurance.

Some progressives may accept these proposals. In a time when British families are reducing their living standards, migrants also need to play their part - big society and all that. Besides, voters have consistently worried about immigration, and now the government are taking action. Further, we're just following the Canadians, and everybody loves them.

The insidious bite in Cameron's speech really came through when he spoke about social housing, where he suggested a waiting period between two and five years for new migrants wishing to get on the waiting list. Of course, this policy responded to the popular notion that immigrants not only get on the social housing list faster, but also get better residences compared to native Britons. Triumphantly, the Prime Minister claimed that his government would end the "something for nothing culture" which apparently all immigrants (except for the select few political strategists like to use to assert they aren't racist) ascribe to.

In fact, this proposal actually shows how badly the government have failed to resolve issues in social housing, jobs and welfare. And with the most recent failings - the AAA downgrade and Osborne's flagship "help to buy" policy heavily criticised following the budget, Cameron is now using immigrants as a way to divert attention from his government's incompetence.

Cameron's argument suggests that the number of migrants coming to the UK inevitably causes a shortfall of social housing. Ergo, restrict access to social housing and the problem is resolved. Except, he chooses to ignore the decrease in social housing resulting from Thatcher's "Right to Buy", or the "Right to Acquire" scheme, of which its legacy speaks only of unaffordable rents and the lowest levels of home ownership since 1987. It also disregards the lack of new affordable homes being built - an issue where the Prime Minister's own party bears a great deal of responsibility. Indeed, the crisis of social housing is not immigrants, but rather the venomous Tory cocktail of greedy landlords and a government more than happy to facilitate them in the name of good business. Depressingly enough, George Osborne's plan is likely to make this existing situation even worse.

The second misappropriation is Cameron's supposed stance on the "something for nothing" culture, where immigrants supposedly plot from their homelands to come to Britain and live luxuriously off the state. The only problem with this, is that it isn't true. In fact, the DWP indicated in 2011 that less than three per cent of benefit claimants were from EU countries. Furthermore, both the 2011 Oxford Migration Observatory report and the ONS Labour Market Statistics report last year indicate that a majority of migrants come to the UK with the intention to work (pdf). Seeing that twice as many foreign migrants were recorded in employment compared to those of British-born origin, it seems clear that these migrants would not only be unable to claim benefits, but would also not be eligible for social housing either.

Despite the statistics, Cameron, and many other senior ministers are continuing to peddle populist rhetoric in order to win back voters. While this might be a great idea to Tory strategists and party backbenchers, it will do little to win the hearts of young Tory moderates, or reinstate trust in the government itself. The truth is that the Prime Minister - once a refreshing change for the Conservatives - is now using a sensitive issue for political advantage. Quite frankly, both British nationals and immigrants deserve a lot better.

David Cameron delivering his speech on immigration in Ipswich earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images
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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle