So Amber Rudd has resigned, saying she had “inadvertently misled” MPs over whether she knew the Home Office set targets for deportations of illegal immigrants. Cue unusually widespread outrage. This could only have happened right after the Windrush scandal had come to light. Thanks to the diligent reporting of the Guardian, alarming stories emerged of long-term tax-paying, law-abiding, UK residents being treated like illegal immigrants: facing eviction; withdrawal of benefits, eligibility to work or NHS access; and being threatened with forced returns to countries they had not lived in for decades.
Theresa May said yesterday that regarding illegal immigrants, the Government was “responding to the need that people see for the Government to deal with illegal immigration”. Her “hostile environment” comment followed an election pledge to reduce net immigration to the “tens of thousands” annually – that was not an example of her going out on a limb, but formed part of her party’s manifesto in 2010 and again in 2015.
Former home secretary Ken Clarke on yesterday’s BBC Radio 4’s World at One [13’07”] said: “There are hundreds of thousands of people here who get smuggled in on lorries or overstay their visitors’ visas and work in the black economy, get sent to prison sometimes, and still don’t leave. The Home Office doesn’t talk very much about the illegals that we have, mainly from the Middle East, some from the Sub-continent and a lot from Africa, and to persuade ordinary, sensible, civilised people that we do have some control, you need to tackle that.”
What if Rudd had done more to explain that last week, albeit with more temperate language and precise figures, and making the distinction between the various categories, instead of trying to deny that there were targets for deportation?
Certainly, the usually anti-immigrant parts of the press made that distinction, expressing outrage at the appallingly unjust treatment of Windrush citizens.
Last night Tory MP Oliver Letwin, grandson of refugees, told BBC Newsnight that politicians had for decades downplayed the benefits that migrants bring to this country.
“All of us over the past 20, 30 years in British politics have underplayed the advantages to our country of migration so the argument has become unbalanced,” argues MP Oliver Letwin @oletwinofficial #newsnight pic.twitter.com/wXa43qznpd
— BBC Newsnight (@BBCNewsnight) April 30, 2018
What is the reason that successive governments have instead pledged to reduce (totally legal) immigration – and then not done so? At the most mercenary level, because they appreciate the economic argument for migrants’ labour and skills, given our own ageing population, skills gaps, low birth rate and so on.
A positive legacy from last week, as Sajid Javid takes over from Rudd, would be a more nuanced public discourse on immigration that includes the humanising and informative distinctions of who, when and why. Ken Clarke’s breakdown didn’t give the full spectrum of why people come here: work, study, family, or to claim asylum because of war or persecution – or that some people who are trafficked may be victims of modern slavery in need of rescue, not arrest.
Anti-migration pledges have long felt like crowd-pleasers – and that’s just it. Why have politicians made such pledges? Because that’s what they think will tickle voters’ ears. Why do right-wing tabloids put negative stories about migrants on their front pages? Because that’s what they think their readers want to read. So the villain of the piece is not Amber Rudd, or even Theresa May before her. Politicians were doing what they believed a substantial chunk of the electorate wanted, and this, whether we like the result or not, is what it looked like.
Top photos via Wikipedia