Nick Boles is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
If we are to avoid making a dogs breakfast of our approach to immigration post-Brexit, we all need to take a deep breath and think things through calmly and dispassionately.
Ministers must resist the temptation to strike attitudes in their policy announcements about this the most sensitive of issues. The rest of us must avoid playing the media’s game and misrepresenting the views of fellow Conservatives in order to get a bit of attention. (Yes, Steve Hilton, that means you).
Immigration has enriched our economy, our society and our culture – almost all Conservatives nowadays acknowledge this. I am currently trying to help my local hospital trust recruit doctors from overseas so they can reopen Grantham A&E at nights. I am married to a foreigner who moved here to be with me and who is now a British citizen.
But I have worried about the economic and social impact of excessive and uncontrolled immigration for many years. And although I campaigned for Remain, I now believe that the vote to leave the EU means we must regain control of immigration and limit the numbers of people moving here.
These different perspectives are not contradictory; in fact they are inextricably linked. For it is only by demonstrating that we have control over immigration that we can reassure people of our good faith when we argue that reasonable levels of immigration are necessary and to the country’s benefit.
I am in no doubt that the NHS would fall over if it weren’t for the hard work and commitment of thousands of immigrants – from Europe and beyond. Jeremy Hunt should be applauded for his decision to train more British doctors, and was absolutely right to say that there is nothing ethical about luring qualified doctors and nurses away from developing countries where their skills are needed more but compensated less.
But I suspect he realises that the NHS will always need to recruit some staff from overseas and whatever system of immigration control follows Brexit will have to cater for that.
Amber Rudd should be applauded for wanting to put pressure on those employers who invest little or nothing in apprenticeships for local people and automatically resort to the recruitment of cheap labour from overseas. But I know that she will also want the millions of foreign-born workers who live here to know that they are welcome, that we value their hard work and will always be grateful for their contribution to Britain’s success.
And Philip Hammond was right to reassure British businesses that they will still be able to recruit the highly skilled foreign workers they need to remain competitive once freedom of movement no longer applies.
If the vote for Brexit meant anything I believe it meant this: the British people want to know that we, their elected representatives, are in control. Not least so that they can give us a hard time if things go wrong – and, ultimately, if we don’t put them right, kick us out.
When we can demonstrate to them that Parliament is in control of the number and identity of people coming here, I am sure that they will be open to arguments about the continuing need for doctors, nurses, research scientists and chemical engineers.
Most of my constituents voted to leave the European Union. They’re not stupid and they’re not racist. They just believe that in sending us to Parliament they gave us a job to do. And that job involves debating openly the level and type of immigration that we need, and subjecting it fairly regularly to a vote in the House of Commons.
It’s not unreasonable. It doesn’t mean we are pulling up the drawbridge or building a wall. And 20 years after Brexit, Britain will still be a country of mongrels, formed by centuries of immigration from all around the world – and all the better for it.