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Thursday, April 14, 2011 

Good and bad immigration.

It isn't exactly news that politicians can at times be cynical beasts. After having campaigned fairly vigorously for that age old misnomer "controlled immigration" last year, David Cameron and the Conservatives then mostly forget they had said any such thing. The Tory policy of reducing net immigration from "hundreds of thousands to tens of thousands" (page 21 of the manifesto) didn't receive a mention in the coalition agreement, while the decent and desperately needed Liberal Democrat push for an amnesty for illegal immigrants was also thrown on the scrapheap. With the exception of Cameron's slight divergence into integration and multiculturalism during a speech on radicalisation, on the same day as the EDL marched through Luton, our dear leader hasn't so much has mentioned the topic over the past year.

What a surprise then that just three weeks before the local elections Cameron finds the time to deliver a speech on immigration to the Tory party faithful. It contains absolutely nothing he hasn't said before and mostly just emphasises what the party's long-term policy on immigration is, which is not the same thing as the coalition policy, even though he presents it as such. Call it what you want, a dog-whistle, a handy reminder to his supporters that they haven't been forgotten, something for the quietly critical tabloids to chew on, an unjustified attack on Labour, it covered all the bases.

Whether or not Vince Cable's objection to the overall tone was manufactured or not is much more difficult to ascertain. I'm certainly cynical enough about the coalition to wonder if much of the so-called divisions are purely cosmetic, playing to each party's base, determined to show that significant differences remain. Nick Clegg, as shown in his New Statesman interview last week is not very good at keeping up the pretence, and instead came off looking like a phoney with an incredibly selective memory, not to mention distinctly strange children (Do they live out the kind of existence featured in Renault car adverts? Papa? Really?). Cable's criticism of the overall tone of Cameron's speech, and "unwise comments" within which risked "inflaming extremism" wasn't exactly ferocious, especially when you consider how critical he's been in the past about the cap on migration from outside the EU. Would Cable also have so easily fell into "the trap" of being on the supposed wrong side of the debate about immigration if he wasn't just engaging in a staged fabrication of a disagreement?

If it wasn't for the highly suspicious release of a quote from Nick Clegg's office, that he had "noted rather than approved" the speech, I'd be inclined to believe that it was Cable speaking out. Instead it does look distinctly like a disagreement about nothing for the benefit of both sides' base, especially with good old Vince coming so quickly round to the "official" view, the spinning having successfully knocked Andrew Lansley's continued difficulties down the news agenda.

This is a double shame, for if even Cameron's main comments that immigration has "created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods" were in fact relatively moderate, they were swiftly sexed up by the media into something far more brutal. The Mail had him saying it had divided Britain, a word not used once in the speech, the Express raised it to "ruined", while the Sun went with "immigration tears UK apart", about as far as from what he actually said as it was possible to imagine. Cameron notably doesn't place any blame whatsoever on the media for inflaming the debate, with their constant distortions, despicable campaigns against asylum seekers and rage-inducing insistence that you can't say anything about immigration without being called a racist, despite having done so themselves ever since the invention of the printing press regardless.

No, all of it instead goes on Labour. It was they who inflamed the debate, ministers refusing to talk about it and screaming racist, while others talked tough but did nothing. For someone aiming "to cut through the extremes of this debate and approach the subject sensibly and reasonably" this is a laughable caricature and he knows it. According to Cameron Labour's stance allowed the BNP to flourish, as if far-right politics in this country had never been in such a position before. Just as transparent is his hope for immigration to return to not being a central issue in our politics, as though at some point in the recent past it wasn't. Immigration and the arguments surrounding it have like the poor always been with us, especially so since the 60s. Labour's chief offence was that it both didn't explain what it was doing enough and that ministers repeatedly refused to defend the policy of allowing those from the eastern European accession states to come here from 2004 without restriction, which as with so much else was a cock-up rather than a conspiracy, based on all other EU states opening their doors at the same time. When only Ireland and Sweden did, it wasn't exactly a shock that so many plumped to give Britain a try.

Like with any modern speech on immigration, Cameron has to praise what it's previously brought us, the all too predictable food, clothing and music, then explain exactly why we can't continue to have such nice things. Cameron and the Conservatives want "good" immigration, rather than unlimited immigration, which not only brings to mind Brass Eye, but also the deserving and undeserving. This essentially means that you're deserving if you're willing to buy your way in or if you have a rudimentary knowledge of English and the skills we need; otherwise, you can get stuffed. This applies in the cruellest of ways - Cameron is quite happy to trumpet the new requirement that those applying for a marriage visa need to demonstrate a "minimum standard of English", as if love has never been able to transcend language. And as others have pointed out, as we demand that those coming here speak English, we're cutting the courses they need in order to learn.

The worst is saved for near the end, where Cameron conflates immigration with welfare. Still it seems we have to contend with the pernicious myth that there's always been hundreds of thousands of people sitting around who could quite easily do the low-paid jobs that immigrants have taken. Like with so much else of the speech, Cameron tries to sugar the pill by stating, quite rightly, that there are never a fixed amount of jobs, and that immigrants don't just take those already available, they also create wealth and more new jobs; then he baldly claims that migrants are filling gaps in the labour market left open by the unreformed welfare state. This is nonsense, not only as Chris outlines, but also for the reason that it's ludicrous to expect those who have been on incapacity benefit (as the numbers on JSA for long periods prior to the recession were negligible) for years to move straight into such often back-breaking labour as cleaning or crop-picking, jobs that have been taken overwhelmingly by young migrants who can quickly move to where the work is, have no dependants and are often employed by agencies that control the entire process, where British workers rarely get a look in.

Even if the Tories ultimately succeed in their bid to get the overall numbers settling here each year under 100,000, we'll still it seems be able to rely on the issue being firmly grasped once campaigning is under way again. The sad thing to note is that we used to have a third party that was prepared to make the case for unpopular causes, only for it to be subsumed into a coalition which now has "disagreements" purely for their own ultimate benefit. No one could possibly want "bad immigration" though, could they?

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