In a saner political climate, the Conservatives would be celebrating today. To win the “global race”, a country needs to attract skilled immigrants who work hard and put in more than they take out. That is exactly what the UK is doing: net migration has just risen to 318,000, the highest figure for a decade.
As immigration has increased, so has growth and the employment rate. Of course, this is not a coincidence. An OECD study two years ago found that the net contribution of immigrants is worth over £7bn per year to UK PLC: money that would otherwise have to be found through higher taxes, lower spending or more borrowing. Clamping down on immigration would be counter-productive, especially for young people: it would make it harder – not easier – for them to find jobs. Net migration increased by 109,000 between 2013 and 2014; the number of British nationals in employment increased by 279,000 in this time.
Not that you’d know it from the reaction to the rise in annual net migration. The Conservatives have already reacted by planning an Immigration Bill with a seven-point plan to clamp down on migrants, which includes extending the principle “deport first, appeal later” to all immigration appeals.
Much of this is very familiar. Last year, the Immigration Act was passed, enshrining into law 77 clauses that made life immeasurably harder for immigrants. Huge numbers – over 30,000 in 2014 – are being detained in immigration detention centres, no doubt including a great number who have risked their lives travelling across the Mediterranean.
But it didn’t stop migrants coming – just as the latest idea for an Immigration Bill won’t. Increased immigration is the price (if you regard it as a price at all) that a country pays for being successful in a globalised world. And it is also, in the UK, US and beyond, a cause of this success. We know, for instance, that the number of patents tends to be higher in countries with more immigration.
The trouble is, the Conservatives cannot say this. Before the 2010 election, David Cameron pledged to bring net migration down to “tens of thousands”. In the 2015 Conservative manifesto, this was downgraded from a target to a mere “ambition”. But the two assumptions underpinning this aim – that the government has the power to clampdown on migration; and that doing so would benefit UK PLC – are fallacies that remain unchallenged.
So when the government announces one more heave on immigration, the risk is that skilled migrants will be put off, sensing a country that does not want them. The UK’s market share in international students has been in decline since 2010, and PwC has warned about the deleterious economic consequences of a 49 per cent fall in Indian students between 2010 and 2012. They are right to do so: international students in London alone contribute a net £2.3bn to the economy every year, making the continued inclusion of foreign students in the net migration target (which the public don’t agree with) all the more perverse.
And so the depressing cycle – politicians claim to “understand people’s concerns” on immigration, promise tough action, inevitably fail to deliver and then promise another anti-immigrant heave – will continue. Politicians from both main parties are united in being too cowardly to make the positive case for immigration and spelling out to voters that fewer immigrants would lead to a higher deficit or lower public spending, or a toxic cocktail of the two. And until that changes, then every announcement that net migration is on the up will further undermine trust in the political class, and be the toast of Ukip and the Brexit camp.