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Conservative Confusion over Immigration Controls
Alfred Sherman

The Salisbury Review Winter 2004

Michael Howard's recent suggestion that asylum and immigration pressures be dealt with by an annual quota system epitomises the crisis in Conservative attitudes and policies over the migration issue. On the one hand, no one in political life can ignore the strength of concern and resentment in Britain as world migrants flood in and set their stamp on national life; so politicians feel obliged to pronounce on it. On the other hand, to take a principled stand leading the way to clear policy-options would unavoidably imply that stances by successive governments and the 'Establishments' which shape their ends and means have been disastrously at fault over the past fifty years. This is uncongenial to politicians, who are loath to confess to error. Since the political establishment rejected Enoch Powell's initiative, the matter has been out of bounds, yet it continues to thrust itself on public consciousness. Hence continual half-hearted statements and initiatives by leaders of all parties while the demographic and economic balance continues to deteriorate and 'communal relations' becomes synonymous with unrequited concessions to the alien.

If Howard's latest innovation is to be taken seriously, prior questions need to be asked. To what extent can an hitherto homogeneous national entity be loaded with wholly alien interlopers without occasioning breakdown of the social consensus which makes a collection of individuals into a nation and establishes social norms? Can national disintegration take effect without far-reaching consequences for social behaviour? How can British society survive division into separate communities each of whose main links is with a majoritarian entity abroad? Secondly, to what extent can a nation of sixty million people crammed into a small area with limited reserves of land and water, shortages of social capital and severe housing shortages accommodate population increase, particularly of large families with low educational standards and earning capacity?

According to national statistics, nominal rates of employment are high and unemployment low. But these disregard the several million non-participants in the labour force under present arrangements: millions of unemployed whether in receipt of benefits or not, millions nominally unfit for work without much in the way of monitoring, illegals, and the millions who escape the statistical net, living off crime, the black economy, welfare, odd jobs, leisure activities and prostitution. At a rough estimate there are 8 million people less in employment than the size of the Labour force would predicate. Unemployed Council tenants are generally excused rent and council tax, which even many in employment avoid anyway. Together with various other benefits, this disinclines them to work, so London has to recruit its transport workers from the South West and Midlands. Two thirds of male Bangladeshis of working age are unemployed; many are unskilled with large families and hence are better off on benefit. The numbers among Pakistanis are little better. Yet additional immigration is canvassed.

Can a rational immigration and employment policy as hinted by Howard be elaborated and administered? It seems doubtful. The Second World War gave us a commitment to full employment as variously defined and measured. A few years earlier this aspiration had been rejected as unrealistic, particularly in a country with a high foreign trade quotient. But wartime gave it political imperatives.

In practice this came to mean heavy subsidies to maintain outdated sectors of traditional employment, mining, heavy industry and textiles. One result has been localised labour shortages, in public transport and other service industries, met by importing labour into inner city areas. With the aim of creating 'full employment regardless', the post-war Labour government and its successors encouraged the expansion of textile production in the North. This had to compete with the much lower labour costs in the Indian Subcontinent. Protection, which seriously raised the cost of living, was introduced, but it was not enough to offset economic disadvantage. So labour was imported from Pakistan for the industry, hundreds of thousands of poor, mainly illiterate peasants and their families. The Islamisation of Northern Britain was begun in the name of full employment for Britons. Warnings at the time were deeded as racism. When expedients failed to keep the uneconomic industry fully alive, heavy unemployment, particularly of Moslems, resulted, and remains, often blamed on to racial discrimination. The consideration that immigrants from backward countries tend to bring their backwardness with them remains taboo. The adventure's social costs are still with us.

There is an argument used by liberals and socialists, which I condemn as basically fascist, namely that immigrants should be brought in from poorer countries to perform jobs which indigenous workers find irksome or badly paid. This is dangerous, because it threatens to create a coloured sub-proletariat easily criminalized. In parts of the country where employment is scarcer, there is no difficulty in manning service industries. In large conurbations, unwillingness to pay the going rate creates labour shortages coexisting with unemployment among indigenous workers and heavy welfare bills. It makes more sense to fit economic policy to labour availability. But it never makes sense to create employment and then import labour to service it.

Britain is a high wage and high cost country. If Howard wishes, it would be possible to bring in large numbers of Eastern Europeans to work at lower rates than British workers are accustomed to accept, leaving the British workers to accept unemployment, welfare and the black economy. This is counter-productive. We experienced this in the sixties, when the unions permitted the wages of public transport operators in London and other major cities to fall below the going rate. Afro-Caribbeans were brought in to meet the shortages, creating social and housing problems. Though there has been no overall labour shortage in the UK since the aftermath of the Black Death, growth in the labour force outstripping demand for labour, post-war provisions have resulted in the coexistence of unemployment and labour shortages. Immigration exacerbates these dysfunctions.

Given that wage rates are higher in the UK than in much of the world, there is always room for labour imports, much of which would be associated with increased indigenous unemployment and welfare dependency and even emigration of British labour. Since the National Health Service was created it has always depended on foreign labour at almost all levels, but there is insuperable reluctance to ask why a country of sixty million inhabitants with high educational levels cannot man its own health service. Yet the question remains highly pertinent.

Howard's proposal for migration quotas assumes a transparent and easily measurable economy and labour market whose all-seeing guardians should be in a position to assess assets and needs and determine quotas and permits. This is considerably more ambitious than Stalin's five year plans or Mao's great leap forward. Indeed, if it is to be taken seriously it would be the most ambitious essay in economic control since the Inca Empire. Why a British Conservative should try them remains to be explained. Is the need to say something, anything, so pressing that anything will do?

As for asylum provisions, the simple fact of the matter is that the world is so cruel to its inhabitants that one could find justification for granting asylum to millions of the world's billions of inhabitants. Given that Britain's population is one per cent of the world's, how would Howard fix his quotas? One could easily reach the millions by the most cursory reading of the daily papers. In other words, the commitment was nonsensical and fraught with peril ab initio. The malevolent lawyers and judges are just epiphenomena; it was and remains an essay in national self-destruction, masochism. This comment may seem harsh, but the Conservatives have had over fifty years to adjust to their wartime full employment undertakings and grasp the imperatives of a welfare economy in a mobile world. Before the Conservative Party sinks completely below the horizon should they not try some systematic thinking on a matter which affects the future of the nation? They might well begin with the maxim: beware of pity!

Alfred Sherman was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher