There is one hot political topic where the two most honest politicians also happen to be the politicians we despise the most. Indeed, we regularly say we value frankness from our elected representatives yet if this issue is anything to go by we actually respond to something quite different: an emotional pandering to our most illogical prejudices.
The topic in question is immigration, an issue we are supposedly "not allowed to talk about" but which almost every week results in some cheap and counterproductive initiative flowing from the mouth of a politician. Yesterday it was Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves talking about restricting benefits for migrants until they’ve worked. Last week it was David Cameron talking about the supposed "magnetic pull" of the British benefits system. Next month we’ll probably hear of a fresh "get tough" announcement depriving immigrants of some other "entitlement" they rarely use.
It should be obvious as to why politicians like to blow the infamous dog-whistle on immigration and drip-feed the press an endless stream of announcements on "restrictions" and "crack downs". In almost every opinion poll immigration is near to the top in terms of issues the public say they are concerned about. And when they say "concerned" they invariably mean pulling up the drawbridge on fortress Britain. According to a poll from January of this year, three quarters of Britons wanted a reduction in the level of immigration, with 56 per cent calling for a big fall in the number of people allowed into the country.
Considering that a majority of recent immigrants are from other countries in the European Union, there are two things that any honest politician can take from this: either Britain must pull out of Europe right away or we must accept the free movement of people and get on with it. All talk by David Cameron of reforming the EU to allow Britain to opt out of free movement is hogwash – however much the Daily Mail thunders the rest of Europe won’t stand for it. We can therefore either cling to the sepia-tinged illusion that Britain can live (and live well) without immigration or we can accept immigration as a fact of life and grapple with the really important issues like integration.
There are only two politicians willing to follow this reasoning to its logical conclusion. Nick Clegg, the consummate pro-European, has (in the past at least) been unafraid to point out that immigration is good for Britain. Meanwhile Nigel Farage, who wants to take Britain out of Europe entirely, says (again truthfully) that you cannot significantly reduce immigration unless Britain leaves the European Union. Both, in their different ways, are correct. And yet their reward for the honesty we say we so badly want is to be the most despised politicians in the country – albeit for quite different reasons.
Indeed, for all we claim to hate the political class for their dishonesty, immigration is the one issue where we are quite comfortable with being lied to. We know very well that migrants pay in to the exchequer more than they take out; and yet still we demand that politicians "crack down" on the mythical concept of "benefit tourism" (there was no evidence of widespread benefit tourism by EU nationals, according to a report last year by the European Commission). We know that Britons are more likely (two-and-a-half times more likely) to be claiming working age benefits than non-UK nationals, but still we buy into racist tabloid stereotypes about opportunistic foreigners ready to steal the shirt off our collective back. We cite free movement as our favourite thing about the EU, yet we grumble into our newspaper when a citizen of another country actually decides to exercise that right.
This probably explains why, while we say we want a large reduction in immigration, we oppose the only sure method of actually bringing it about – leaving the EU.
It’s a cliché to say that we get the politicians we deserve, but immigration is the one issue where we really do. We want the European Union and the fiscal benefits of immigration but without any of the perceived drawbacks. We want the minimum wage cleaners, the nannies and the glass collectors but without the sound of the foreign voices on the daily commute. We say we don’t want migrants coming here to "steal our jobs" but we do nothing about it because, deep down, we know they are coming to Britain and paying for our pensions.
The next time you hear David Cameron or Ed Miliband making unkeepable promises about immigration, or pledging to "listen to genuine concerns" (whatever that entails) bear in mind that they are only doing what most people seemingly want them to do: using macho rhetoric that signifies nothing. On immigration, we demand that our politicians serve us a dish of fried snowballs and then feign disappointment when they fail to deliver it. We want immigration but without the immigrants. Try and triangulate your way out of that one.