Controlling immigration: the snake oil of our time

Nigel Farage has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. The problem comes when the other politicians try to "out-Farage" him.

Today, I watched as a monarch, wearing a crown encrusted with more than 3,000 precious gems, announced to a group of lords and bishops what “her” government’s plans for the Parliamentary session were and granted them God’s blessing. Later, in the ironically named House of Commons, the Eton-educated, millionaire grandson of a baronet, a direct descendent of King William IV and fifth cousin of the aforementioned monarch, gave further details. If this is a democracy, it is cleverly disguised on days like these.

Tightening control of immigration, as expected, occupied centre stage. Piecing together leaks, briefings and subsequent announcements, this appears to include restricting benefits and healthcare (presumably to address the relevant “tourisms”), access to driving licences, forcing landlords to check a tenant’s immigration status, ensuring surviving foreign spouses do not collect pension benefits to which equivalent British spouses would be entitled. In the analysis which followed, we were assured repeatedly that all this had nothing to do with the recent surge in Ukip’s popularity.

Do I have a problem with a bill designed to "ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not"? Absolutely not. Similarly, I would have no problem, in principle, with a Bill designed to ensure that the eastern grey kangaroo ought to be a protected species in Hampshire. Is there any actual evidence that either is a real problem which merits legislative priority? Absolutely not.

Evidence from the DWP on the relative burden imposed by EU migrants on welfare is unequivocal: of the 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age living here, about 5% claim an "out of work benefit" compared with 13% for Britons. And what about other services? Unsurprisingly, since the majority of migrants are young healthy adults, research shows that they impose a disproportionately small burden on health and education.

All the much ballyhooed "health tourism" costs the NHS between £7m (according to the Health Minister) and £20m (according to the Prime Minister). How much money would you need for the administration of a system in which every doctor and nurse, in every practice and hospital, would be made to check the nationality and immigration status of every potential patient?

All in all, a comprehensive study of the last wave of migration from countries which acceded in 2004 demonstrates conclusively that year after year they contributed to the public purse roughly 30% more than they cost. In short, they are a huge asset. How is it, then, that we (I am one such migrant, albeit from a different era) find ourselves in the eye of a political storm and the target of sustained attack?

It would be facile to say that the answer is Nigel Farage. He has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties. The British economy is in deep distress and crying like a baby, not conscious of or unable to express the source of its discomfort. The other leaders were standing over the cot arguing about whether it is hungry or thirsty or teething or has colic. Farage has stepped into the nursery picked it up and put a dummy in its mouth. The dummy will do nothing to address the underlying problem, but it is comforting.

Like a Snake Oil salesman, he has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. Unemployment? Lack of economic growth? Unfairness? Corruption? Arthritis? Unrequited love? Try some of this Bash-A-Foreigner ointment and everything will be dandy - or your money back.

The real problem arises when Cameron, who purports to be the village pharmacist, decides it is too difficult to disabuse people of this notion and easier to get into the Snake Oil racket. It legitimises the confidence trick and emboldens the charlatan. All Farage needs to do is make the - now legitimate - claim that he sells The Original Snake Oil. Avoid Imitations.

And the confidence trick is a rather gigantic one. The OECD says income inequality is growing in this country faster than any other rich nation in more than 40 years. The richest 300 people in the world possess more wealth than than the poorest three billion – the equivalent of the populations of the UK, the US, India, Brazil and China combined. The annual income of the 100 richest people could end global poverty four times over. Stocks in the UK and the US hit pre-crisis peaks, but nothing is “trickling down” and absolutely no action has been taken to avert another shock which will kick us like a FTSE in the Nasdaqs.

At a time like this, when we all sharpen our elbows and worry increasingly about securing a more equitable slice of the pie, a job which pays a living wage, care when we are old or sick or both, a safety net of kindness, an education and a future for our children, the idea that the people standing in our way are fictional Romanians and foreign widows is not only daft, but immensely dangerous. Roll up, roll up.

The Queen with an immigrant. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.