I like to think I have campaigned pretty consistently against pointless quotas and restrictions
Sheesh. Cool it, folks. I know that from time to time this column has scandalised some readers with its laissez-faire approach. I opposed the ban on fox-hunting. I had a pop at mandatory booster seats for 10-year-olds and warnings on wine bottles that the contents can make you drunk, and I have drawn attention to the paranoid airline rule that an unaccompanied adult male may not be allowed to sit next to children. I have even defended the inalienable right of every freeborn Englishman or woman – provided he or she is in full command of the vehicle – to ride a bicycle while talking on a mobile phone.
I like to think I have campaigned pretty consistently against pointless quotas and restrictions, and sometimes readers have objected to my libertarianism. But never have I provoked such pant-hooting anger as when I suggested, the other day, that we might revisit the new cap on the number of talented people who can come to work in this country.
Trawling the web, I came on a sensationalised report of my views, together with a thread of comments. It was like opening the door of the monkey house in the middle of a riot. It was a pandemonium of incredulous anger. I was a “traitor”, cried the internet commentariat.
The gist of my plan (or so they seemed to think) was to commandeer super-ferries laden with unemployed Venusian layabouts, draw them up off the beaches at Ramsgate and Deal, and then open the bow doors and order the hordes to swarm ashore – scrounging benefits from under the noses of the indigenous people.
They seemed to think, in short, that I was in favour of uncontrolled immigration. Perhaps through misreporting, perhaps because I hadn’t made myself clear enough, they had picked up the idea that I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jack Straw and Tony Blair, and open the floodgates, take the brakes off and generally let rip.
So perhaps I can enter a nervous cough of clarification. That impression is wrong. That is the opposite of what I am saying, and the last thing this country needs.
Of all the revelations about the Blair years, one of the most fascinating and suggestive has been the confession by Andrew Neather – a former Labour apparatchik and now a reputable journalist – that Labour ministers secretly decided in 2000 to turn the immigration tap on full blast.
They did this, he claims, not so much because the economy demanded more skilled workers from overseas, but because they wanted to transform Britain for good, to make the place more multicultural and “to rub the Tories’ nose in it”, by which I suppose he means to make the Conservatives seem ever more remote and out of touch with the realities of a changing country.
Of course, during the boom years there were some serious economic benefits that flowed. Business had a ready supply of labour, skilled and unskilled, and that helped to hold down wages and prices. But by the same token, the policy hit the very people that had traditionally been identified by Labour as its core vote – people who found, or certainly believed, that they were losing jobs, homes and benefits to the incomers; and their fears were by no means always groundless.
There is some evidence, for example, that British building companies cancelled training projects for British workers, because they found they could just hire Poles and other East Europeans who needed no training. During the first decade of this century, 2.3 million immigrants were added to the population, and as the decade wore on – especially as the economy turned bad – people’s resentment became easy to fan, whether it was justifiable or not.
After years of quiescence, the far-Right was back on the scene. By this year’s general election, the issue of immigration had become utterly toxic, and all parties were calling for something to be done. Labour had already introduced a points-based system, but the Tories wanted to go further. They were, of course, statutorily incapable of addressing a large part of the problem – immigration from the 27 countries of the EU.
So at the end of June, the Coalition imposed a strict numerical cap on all skilled non-EU immigration. The result, I regret to say, is a bit of a shambles. Leading London law firms say that they cannot import some of the finest legal minds on the planet, because they cannot get enough visas.
Universities and cancer research institutes cannot recruit the right overseas academics, damaging their long-term reputations. Ballet stars and film directors are finding themselves excluded from London’s arts scene, and across the world of business and finance there is a block on the intra-company movement of the kind of highly skilled technicians – especially in IT – who are crucial for keeping a business competitive. There is an Asian electric vehicle company that was due to set up here, but is now thinking of moving to Amsterdam because they can’t migrate their boffins here in time. And so on.
The overwhelming view of British business is that this policy needs refinement, and I have to say I agree. But this is not, repeat not, a request for anything like the apparently politically motivated and uncontrolled immigration of the New Labour years. That would be a serious mistake.
With colossal pressure on all budgets, such a policy would be unfair on the existing population and indeed on communities of recent immigrants. We need tougher border controls, an end to illegal immigration and time, frankly, to absorb the recent influx. But if London is to continue to generate the tax revenue Britain demands, we need to attract top talent from around the world.
Uncontrolled, unskilled immigration – no. Bringing indispensable skills to London – yes.
Boris writes in The Daily Telegraph on Mondays