The Tories are using immigrants as a scapegoat for the economic woes facing Britain today but it’s overtaxation and overregulation not immigration that has caused this mess, argues Matthew Lesh
The Conservative Party conference this week in Manchester had the ambience of a living wake. Senior ministers whizzed around in motorcades like usual, there were the stock standard unmemorable policy announcements, and lobbyists played their influence games.
But behind all this, there was a notable quiet. There wasn’t excitement about the future or a manic state with everything going wrong. Just a quiet acceptance among the walking dead that the current era of Conservative government is coming to a close.
With defeat widely accepted, the conversation turned to “who’s next?”. One candidate for leadership is home secretary Suella Braverman, who gave a particularly barnstorming speech to the party faithful. From labelling the Human Rights Act a “Criminal Rights Act” to the ejection of Tory London assembly member Andrew Boff, this address provided showmanship at an otherwise morose occasion.
The central theme of Braverman’s speech was that “immigration is already too high” and a warning that a “hurricane” of mass migration is coming. Putting aside the ostensible contradiction (if only Braverman knew someone responsible for our immigration system!) this focus and these claims mark a worrying turn.
Immigrants are increasingly becoming scapegoats for Britain’s myriad problems. Braverman hinted at this tendency by warning that even if Britain “concreted over the countryside” it would be impossible to accommodate everyone who wants to come. In truth, of course, no serious politician is calling for “open borders”.
In practice, it would be perfectly possible to accommodate current levels of immigration – if not many more – through densification of existing cities with negligible impact on the countryside. But after many years of government failures on house building, it’s much easier to talk about immigration than admit that even if the UK closed the borders tomorrow, there would still be a housing crisis.
Reducing immigration, according to many politicians and commentators, is also the way to deliver the UK a “high growth, high wage” economy. But again, this is blaming immigrants for something that is not their fault. Limiting immigration numbers won’t magically lead businesses to invest more in capital. In truth, the reason the UK has low investment is because of overtaxation and overregulation. If anything, immigrants boost our productivity by starting innovative businesses and filling skills gaps. Just take the NHS, where around 30 per cent of doctors are immigrants and 22 per cent of overall staff.
The same goes for the claim that immigrants are burdening public services. Not only do migrants pay thousands in “NHS surcharges” to get visas and all the usual taxes, but they also tend to be younger and therefore put less burden on health and welfare services. One study from UCL found that between 2000 and 2011, immigrants on net contributed £25 billion to public finances while natives cost public finances £617 billion.
Immigration does come with challenges – from questions about integration through to the need to address the tragic scenes of people dying in the channel. It is important that immigration is orderly and that new arrivals are given a proud nation to join.
The immigrant story should be celebrated not demonised. The fact that so many people want to make Britain their home is an honour. And with an ageing population putting pressures on public finance and almost a million job vacancies, immigrants are a key part of the solution to Britain’s woes, not part of the problem.
Matthew Lesh is the Director of Public Policy and Communication at the Institute of Economic Affairs