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Why Britain needs to have an honest conversation about rising migration

Few things are more corrosive of public trust than pretending a problem isn’t there. Sooner or later the public notices.

By Andrew Marr

If you drive around southern England, you quickly notice what a lot of it there is – endless undulating fields; huge post-industrial stretches of sheds and crumbling walls; the 1930s sprawl along what were then called arterial roads. Britain is still a country of half-forgotten back roads and nettle-choked corners. But could we accommodate another 10 million busy, bustling British people?

A lot of new Britons came here last year. Net migration was around half a million. There was no real public discussion about that, although politicians did say that the Chinese state’s repression in Hong Kong, and the Ukraine war, meant the UK had obligations to special groups of people. The raw numbers of migration are much higher now – a rise of between 100,000 to 200,000 – than when David Cameron was wrestling with the “immigration problem” so unsuccessfully during his premiership, an issue which later became a big factor during the Brexit referendum in 2016.

The countries of birth of the people immigrating to the UK are now different too – far fewer from the European continent and with a greater number from India and Pakistan. Wittingly or not, Suella Braverman and her colleagues have highlighted the hidden immigration story by focusing so aggressively on the people crossing the Channel by boat. The Illegal Migration Bill – which is now likely to be the subject of a protracted battle in the House of Lords, followed by a fist-fight between Lords and Commons – has been crafted to allow the Tories to attack Labour rather than to settle the problem.

The bill won’t work as law, but it might work as a weapon. Labour has its own plan, involving a new cross-channel elite police operation and fresh agreements with other countries, but it’s nuanced and thoughtful and therefore lacks the punch-in-the-mouth impact of the Rwanda flights policy.

The Tories understand the emotional power of simple images – such as rubber rafts with passengers swaddled in life-jackets, crunching up the shingle on south-eastern beaches. These could, possibly, be followed in due course with photos of struggling, manacled people being led up stairways on to aircraft, watched by blue-haired young people beyond the perimeter wire, waving placards and consumed by grief.

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The picture-book has been thought through, and no doubt focus-grouped by gleeful ministers. It may prove too clever. Middle-ground Tories hear ministers talk about Britain’s sense of fairness and compassion, and have noticed it’s all transparent camouflage for the opposite.

Meanwhile, the more that wary Brexit voters hear ministers talk about the dangers of illegal immigration, the likelier it is they’ll notice the bigger picture – that the overall legal immigration number is now higher than before the Brexit vote. If the flights don’t go ahead, those voters will punish the Tories immensely. Yet even if they do, they may still be dissatisfied and turn, in this “long Brexit” phase of British politics, to anti-Tory parties of the right, such as Reform UK. This wasn’t the Brexit they voted for. So talking endlessly about illegal migration might be a way of haemorrhaging votes away from the Tories.

[See also: The UK is less racist than the left – and the right – think]

The Labour Party must sharpen its migration policy. It’s certainly a good idea to have a plan that can be summed up pithily. It would be a terrible idea, however, for Labour to simply try to out-nasty the Conservatives when it comes to speaking about those who are seeking asylum. If both sides have the same values, why vote?

A fair but tough conclusion is to acknowledge that politicians of both leading parties have not been honest or open with the public about the quantity of migration. On immigration generally – not just asylum seekers – there needs to be a different kind of conversation.

The left hates talking about immigration because it thinks any kind of controls, anywhere, are racist; the right has been running an economy, in part, dependent on endless reserves of imported labour, which it doesn’t like talking about. However, few things are more corrosive of public trust than pretending a problem isn’t there. Sooner or later the public notices.

So, what is the problem, you might very well ask? It’s got little to do with “values” – except that migrants tend to be more religious and harder working than the rest of us. The problem is capacity. In Britain in 2023, there is a “not-enough” crisis: not enough houses; not enough doctors’ surgeries, not enough school places – in many areas, not enough road space.

Part of an honest conversation is to explain in detail why those “not enough” problems may have been exacerbated by immigration, but that it is certainly not the root cause. The issues are the result of long-term failure to invest in a well-housed, decently served country.

Yet we should not panic. According to the Migration Observatory at Oxford University, Britain in the 2020s has a foreign-born population of around 14 per cent. That’s similar to the US, Spain, France and the Netherlands; and below Germany, Ireland, Canada and Australia.

Far from having an abnormal rate of immigration, we are around what you’d expect for a country of our wealth and global connections. Nor is the current rate of growth inevitable. In its most recent population projections, the Government’s Office for National Statistics reported that net migration would fall to an average long-term level of 205,000 by 2027.

The UK is also a densely populated country, with relatively old transport links and a poor recent history of house building, but exists in a world where, because of climate change, war and failing states, more and more people are on the move. What should we do about that?

The most important announcement that Keir Starmer’s Labour Party has made this year, is the commitment to reinstating the target to build 300,000 new homes annually. The policy was dropped by the Conservatives because of pressure from back-bench MPs. Labour has also promised to build more social housing and establish a new charter for renters.

Starmer wants to overhaul planning regulations, and that is vital. Yet Labour needs to go further and catch the imagination of the millions of disaffected younger voters, who are desperate to own their own homes. As I have argued here before, the party should commit itself to a new generation of environment-friendly “new, new towns”, with their own parks, shopping facilities, entertainment and offices – well-built and pleasant places to live. Rather than just talk about this, they should begin to give us some indication of where the next towns could be built, and they should be working right now with the superb new generation of eco-friendly architects: we need to see the vision.

In a country, however, with limited space and resources, we need that honest national conversation to reach towards the problem of maximum density for a happy, liveable society. Our population is projected to grow by more than four million by 2050 and ten million by the end of the century. Will we have the water supplies, roads and built infrastructure to cope? Where will the new schools and hospitals and care homes come from?

It can be done. However, we need to recognise the scale of investment ahead. If you look back at black-and-white photos of Manchester in the early 1960s, or of Glasgow, you will be staggered by the poverty and filth – the badly clothed, shoeless children on the streets, the rubble and the slums. We are a transformed country, even in these very hard times – and a further similar transformation is entirely possible.

Yet this can only happen after an honest conversation between the political class and the voting public. At some point during that discussion, politicians will have to ask how many people Britain can absorb over the next century. It’s a hard question, but refusing to ask it isn’t an answer.

[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about immigration?]

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This article appears in the 03 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Beneath the Crown