The liberal orthodoxy on mass immigration must change. Even when it was thought that net migration had hit a historic 600,000 last year, it seemed to tip the country into precarious and uncharted territory. But the revision of that figure upwards to 750,000 has plunged politics into the realm of parody. In a country where the refusal to deliver Brexit fully has left millions feeling duped and ignored, that is dangerous. We may be on the cusp of the country’s second major political upset in seven years. The Reform Party is surging, even without the starpower of Nigel Farage, and the Tories face electoral annihilation over their abject failure to bring down the migration numbers.
The good news is that politicians on both sides may be grudgingly getting the message. Sensitive to voter anxiety that immigration is out of control, they are becoming reluctant heretics against the status quo. True, the Tories are still tying themselves in knots. With the Cabinet split over how best to revive the Rwanda plan, the new Home Secretary James Cleverly has risked backbench ire by downplaying the notion that it is a “silver bullet”.
But behind the scenes there appears to be a genuine scramble to stem the number of legal entries. An increase to the salary threshold for work visas is believed to be imminent. Labour is also slowly changing its tune. Over the weekend, it committed to bringing net migration down to a more “normal level”. If this is indeed a departure from the liberal orthodoxy on immigration, it will be no small matter. It has prevailed for three generations. A quasi-religious belief system, this orthodoxy is suffused with the spirit of post-war humanitarianism, and a fundamentalist faith in the benevolent forces of globalisation. But the real secret to its success is that it is practical as well as spiritual. Its gospel has been spread, not only through the poetry of moral compassion but the prose of sensible bureaucratic pragmatism. And yet, increasingly, it is the “sensible” arguments for a relaxed liberal attitude to immigration that are breaking down.
Take the doctrine that the British economy is so reliant on immigration that it would collapse if numbers were dramatically reduced. At the moment, economic stagnation is, if anything, reinforcing the establishment consensus on the matter. As the UK becomes trapped in a vicious cycle – whereby a rising population is the only thing growing the economy – business lobby groups and economists are doubling down on the need to keep the borders open. As a cash-strapped NHS haemorrhages home-grown staff, the health department is if anything being even more aggressive as it pressures the Home Office to continue issuing visas for healthcare workers.
This is transparently unsustainable. It is undeniable that many migrants make a net contribution to the Treasury. But the British state has shown itself to be too dysfunctional to make the infrastructure and public service improvements necessary to ensure that high population growth is not detrimental to living standards. Even leading establishment number crunchers, such as David Miles of the Office for Budget Responsibility, have started to allude to this. This is not to mention the fact that, as the world stands on the brink of the AI age, having such a long tail of essentially unproductive businesses addicted to cheap labour will look recklessly outdated.
The tactic of recruiting high numbers of doctors and nurses from abroad has also backfired. The failure to build a sustainably funded health system with competitively paid staff who enjoy good career progression, and who aren’t forced to expend much of their energy battling red tape, has led to horrific churn rates and a brain drain, with doctors and nurses emigrating to countries like Australia. The luxury of being able to endlessly poach people from developing countries may have contributed to a fatal belief that reforming the NHS can always be kicked down the road. Then there is welfare. Believers in the liberal orthodoxy think that the country cannot hope to produce more homegrown workers because millions of Britons are in no position to work. The entire “benefits blob” is adamant that there can be no grand movement to get people on benefits into employment because most of them are too sick.
Yet this is based on highly questionable assumptions. With mental health issues accounting for one third of all benefits claims, and a whopping 70 per cent of claims among the under-25s, compassionate liberalism risks collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions. It is surely not too hyperbolic to imagine that, based on current trends, we may be mere years away from a situation when even net migration of one million a year won’t be enough to offset a shrinking domestic talent pool. While the country must take mental health seriously, that should not stop the authorities from interrogating the increasing numbers of claims, and questioning whether the definition of poor mental health has been drawn too widely. The liberal orthodoxy is also in trouble on refugees. The prevailing establishment view has been that the only realistic way to stop the boats is through a deal with the French – involving Britain taking a share of asylum seekers off France’s hands. This might have been politically possible just after Brexit, when the economy was in better shape and the public was more relaxed about migration, having “taken back control”. Today, it would be electoral suicide. The basic reality – that only hard deterrence can settle the issue – is becoming impossible to deny.
That will mean challenging the inviolable status of some of the orthodoxy’s sacred and outdated texts, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Geneva Convention on Refugees. Any suggestion that Britain should leave the ECHR is met with derision that this would damage Britain’s geopolitical standing. But how can this position – which deems it more important that the UK adheres to international liberal norms than defend its borders – possibly hold? It flies in the face of not only the democratic will but also basic issues of national security, and faith in the British values of order, sovereignty and fair play, and can only invite the rise of a far-Right party.
Unless elected politicians can find the will and courage to question outdated liberal doctrines on migration, Britain is heading for serious trouble. One can only hope that the penny has finally dropped for Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer.