So now we know. David Cameron’s pledge to reduce net migration to tens of thousands was rubbish. A pipe dream. A little Englander fantasy.
But then, we always knew it was a fantasy. And we knew it was a fantasy for this reason: although David Cameron pledged to reduce immigration, he couldn’t, and he knew he couldn’t.
There are many popular theories for why immigration to Britain is increasing. One favourite is the loucheness of our benefits system. Another – recently propagated by the Home Secretary herself – is the corruption of the student visa system. A third is an erosion of those stout sentinels that constitute the UK Border Force. Labour are especially keen to talk that one up at the moment, although I see Yvette Cooper is this morning pushing a new pet theory, namely that the migration figures reflect the fact we don’t have enough apprenticeships.
It’s rubbish. More immigrants are coming to the UK for three reasons: because they want to work here, because there are lots of jobs for them to do here, and because they can.
I’ve witnessed some bizarre debates during my time working in and writing about politics. Tony Blair’s attempt to justify the war to seize Saddam’s chemical weapons when he had no weapons and we knew he had no weapons; Margaret Thatcher’s efforts to convince the country the Poll Tax was fair. But the spectacle of our politicians scurrying around, pledging to curtail immigration into the UK, whilst maintaining open borders and defending free movement within the EU, tops the lot.
Recently the Prime Minister delivered a speech designed to resolve, once and for all, the immigration issue. It contained no fewer than 8 major proposals.
A ban on migrants' in work benefits. A ban on child benefit for overseas dependants. Removal of migrants after 6 months if they haven’t found work. Restrictions on entry for non-EU dependants. Stopping of Universal Credit. Accelerated deportation of convicted criminals. Longer re-entry bans. Restrictions on entry of citizens of future EU member states.
All of which is fine. But there’s one minor problem with this grand plan to stop immigrants coming to the UK: it leaves immigrants free to come to the UK.
Where are the immigrants? This map will tell you
Figures for 2014 are year to September
Imagine if David Cameron stood up and announced in the House of Commons: “For too long we have been excessively liberal in our attitude towards convicted criminals. We have cosseted and pampered them. This pampering must end. So today I am announcing we are releasing all convicted criminals from prison with immediate effect." Or if Ed Miliband proclaimed: “Tax avoidance is a fraud. It is a fraud perpetrated by the richest in our society on the poorest. This fraudulent behaviour must cease. To ensure it does, the next Labour government will abolish Income Tax."
By committing themselves to “getting to grips” with immigration, whilst advocating and maintaining free movement within the EU, this is essentially what David Cameron and Ed Miliband are doing. They are advocating one objective while simultaneously proposing a policy that guarantees a diametrically opposed outcome. There is a technical term for this; it’s called lying.
What exactly are Cameron and Miliband hoping to achieve? Do they think people won’t spot the disconnect? “See, immigration’s up by another 46,000, Bill!” "Yeah. But don’t worry. Ed Miliband’s going to bring back apprenticeships. Everything’s in hand."
Some time later today, Nigel Farage will pop up and say, “see, we told you! Both the Tories and Labour promised to get to grips with immigration, and they failed. If you really want to tackle the problem, the only solution is to vote Ukip.” And Nigel Farage is right. Ukip’s stance on migration is underpinned by naked prejudice. Their policy proscription – EU withdrawal and closure of our borders – would be economically cataclysmic for Britain. But credit where credit is due. At least it’s honest and intellectually coherent. If you want to reduce immigration, then a vote for Ukip is indeed the only option.
The same cannot be said for the policy stances of either the Conservative party or the Labour party. Their positions are bankrupt, both morally and intellectually. They have pledged not to out-Ukip Ukip, and then tried to do just that. They have talked tough on immigration whilst pursuing policies they know full well will lead to an increase in immigration. And through their failure to make the case for immigration – a case they know is, in fact, unanswerable – they stand guilty of one of the worst abdications of political responsibility for a gene.... Appeasement, masquerading as political populism, itself masquerading as political empathy.
And like all acts of appeasement, it has failed. David Cameron’s credibility has been damaged, as Ed Miliband’s will be as he scrabbles around trying to exploit the moment. Nigel Farage will seize on the figures as a drowning man grasps a piece of flotsam. But they’ve arrived too late. Ukip’s decline will accelerate as we approach the reckoning of May 8.
Leaving us with what? More vacuous, undeliverable immigration pledges. Pledges that will continue to broaden the gap between rhetoric and reality. A gap that will again be filled by anger, and frustration, and the tortured, unfulfilled fantasies of little England.