Immigration cap makes “Little Europeans” of us all

A cap on immigration will squander goodwill towards the UK around the world.

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It is a rare sight indeed to observe Diane Abbott and Lord Pearson of Rannoch in complete agreement with each other. But the Labour leadership hopeful and the UK Independence Party leader were as one on Newsnight last night.

The immigration cap on skilled workers from outside the EU, said Abbott, was "a bogus policy designed to placate people who don't like immigrants". She pointed out that "the big flows of immigrants to Britain are students, dependants and people from within the EU, so there's not much they can do about it, otherwise they'd be in breach of various treaties". Lord P then obligingly started quoting from said treaties until Gavin Esler cut him off.

That was their objection, which I share. Further than that, though, I wonder how this move appears to countries with which we have deep historic links and in which there are still deeps wells of Anglophilia that, alas, too often we ignore. What does it say, for instance, to the members of the Commonwealth? The Times of India was clear in its headline today: "New UK immigration norms to hit Indians".

"It'll be a huge message to the rest of the world that Britain is no longer as welcoming to young professionals, let alone the people who want to work behind bars, as it once was," Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, told Australia's ABC News.

"There will be young Australians who will listen to this news story and say, 'I could take my skills anywhere in the world. I'm looking for a bit of an adventure, but I'm hearing some bad things about the UK, so I might go and work in the US or Canada or wherever else it is.' "

Just as with the Gurkhas, who until last year were good enough to fight and die for Britain, but not worthy of the right to settle in the country whose interests they were defending, or the 3.2 million British passport-holders in Hong Kong whom only Paddy Ashdown argued should have the right of residence in the UK after the colony was handed back to the Chinese, politicians in London seem content to dishonour our obligations and debts to other parts of the world where Britain is still thought of with a fondness that an ex-imperial power is fortunate to enjoy.

Europhiles like to label sceptics as "Little Britons". But it is they who have become "Little Europeans", forgetful of our history and foolishly inward-looking, in a century when power and prosperity is ebbing towards those very countries whose citizens' entry we are now blocking.

The goodwill towards the UK around the world is a priceless asset. We should be recognising it as such, instead of diminishing it by closing the door in the faces of old friends.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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