Beyond the Westminster goldfish bowl, there’s plenty of evidence that immigration remains one of the main issues of concern among the electorate. The first part of the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary gave us plenty of evidence, both verbal and from polling, confirming this.
This is of course nothing new – people have been worried about immigration for over fifty years. It is forty years since Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech. Back then, while ostracised by many, Powell found some unlikely supporters among the white working-class of East London. Perhaps some of them lived in the part of East Ham I live in now, they would doubtless find it very different.
Many now think that a new Conservative Government will sort out the mess that Labour has created on immigration. There are widespread calls for a moratorium on further immigration and while repatriation remains well below the surface, it is never far from some minds. None of this will of course happen – a David Cameron Government will talk tough on immigration and perhaps bring in some legislation, which will sound tough and convince people that it is acting tough.
Those who believe this will happen are foolish, naïve and wrong.
Immigration isn’t challenged by changes of Government but rather by changes in international and global economics. In this respect, the Tories may be likely but let no one be fooled into thinking they will do or say anything noticeably different from Labour under Gordon Brown.
For the reasons why, it’s time for a quick economics and history lesson:
First, the economics – we live in a capitalist economy and two of the basic preconditions for the functioning of a capitalist economy are the free movement of capital and the free movement of labour. The former allows entrepreneurs to set up where they want and the latter provides a work force for them to make and sell goods and services. Economies where one or other condition does not exist run into trouble. If, for example, there is a shortage of labour, business has to pay workers more, which it passes on to consumers in the form of increased prices fuelling inflation. Business is always seeking ways to cut costs and one of the biggest costs is wages. If, in one area, you have to pay £10 and hour to a worker and in another it’s only £2 a hour, logic dictates you will hire the worker to whom you can pay £2 or perhaps £2.50.
Right, let’s consider the history. The Industrial Revolution in Britain and elsewhere was predicated on the movement of workers and their families from agricultural areas to the new factories. For many farm workers, a job in a factory, brutal as it would seem to us now, was far better paid than labouring in the countryside.
This movement of population within countries continues to this day and is particularly evident in China where a wholesale migration of people from country to town has caused enormous social upheaval (especially when combined with the infamous “one child” policy).
British industrial development was therefore based on the movement of population from the countryside into the new towns and factory areas. In the 19th Century, this began to draw in people from further afield such as Ireland and Scotland. Later, those persecuted in other countries were made welcome as contributors of both capital and labour to the British economy so we saw Jews, Russians and a myriad of other Europeans and others come to especially East London.
As the economy was rebuilding after 1945, it soon became evident that the war had left a shortage of labour. In addition, the imposition of the Iron Curtain had cut off one of the traditional sources of cheap capital and labour so Britain, and other former colonial powers, sought to bring in cheap labour from the former Empire. Thus we saw large-scale immigration from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s and from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 1960s and 1970s. The French brought in people from North Africa while the West Germans, lacking any Imperial subjects of their own, used “guest workers” from Turkey and Yugoslavia.
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989-90, a new market for capital and labour was opened up and it was little surprise that conservatives, socialists and liberals all saw the benefit of bringing the newly-liberated East European countries into the western economic orbit. Conservatives, in particular, saw these countries as a bulwark against what was seen as the creeping Euro-federalism of France, Germany and Benelux.
Thus was the stage set for the incorporation of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and others into the EU. This coincided with benign economic circumstances in Western Europe as defence spending was slashed and the first influx of cheap goods from China began keeping inflation and interest rates low. As in the 1980s, the British economy, especially in London and the Home Counties, was in dire need of cheap labour and with wages high by Polish standards, the influx of skilled and unskilled labour was inevitable and so it has continued incorporating people from the Baltic States and latterly Romania and Bulgaria.
This unprecedented wave of migration and immigration is causing dangerous social and demographic imbalance in Eastern Europe but in Britain it fuelled the economic boom of the mid-90s, late 90s and early 00s. Of course, the social and cultural impact of large numbers of migrants weren’t anticipated or bothered about to be honest. The priority is and always has been the maintenance of economic growth – it was in the 18th Century, the 19th and the 20th and is still the case in the 21st.
The problem now is the rise in worldwide energy and raw material prices combined with the credit crunch have thrown the economy into trouble and successive media stories of doom and gloom have created a febrile atmosphere of hysteria and concern. Suddenly, the “immigrants”, who we are quite happy to see doing the jobs we won’t do for the wages we wouldn’t accept, are a “problem”. In a contracting or stagnating economy, unemployment becomes an issue as does job competition.
There are already signs that some of the Poles have made their money and are going home while emigration from the British Isles (rarely mentioned) continues to increase. It may well be that the global downturn will act as a buffer against further immigration but it’s too early to tell.
Of one thing we can be certain – David Cameron and his ilk know that economic growth is predicated on cheap labour. Cutting off sources of cheap labour just because people are worried about immigration simply isn’t going to happen – no Government or serious political party plays with economic prosperity that way. So the election of David Cameron will change nothing. A recession will halt immigration; Tory bluster won’t though they will work hard to convince voters it will.