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

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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.