Conservatives have, for some years, been rather sceptical about immigration into the UK, making the control of immigration a high priority. But what is usually missed in the immigration debate is that when people say there is “too much” immigration what they must mean is that there is too much immigration into a few specific regions of England. For most of Britain it would be good if there were more immigration – indeed, a lot more immigration – not less.
There are two arguments worth giving a hearing on immigration: (a) that the speed is too high for the numbers of immigrants to be absorbed into the native population without significantly disrupting its culture and norms and traditions; (b) that we’re full. There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether the rate of immigration into some parts of England is too high. There’s a strong case (indeed, I suspect a decisive case) that some parts of London, the South-East and Birmingham should be regarded as “full”. But neither of these arguments has the remotest purchase across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales or most of Northern or South-West England.
We can illustrate the point by comparing population growth in England with that in Scotland and Northern Ireland. In 1911 the population of England was 33m, and still just 39m in 1951. But by 2011 it was 53m – a rise of about 60% in a century. And when we bear in mind that the rise is focused upon the South-East, Birmingham and Greater Manchester, we can appreciate the sense of people in some parts of the country that the growth in population is overwhelming them.
But now consider Scotland. Scotland’s population in 1911 was 4.8m and by 2001 was still just 5.0m. The population in 2001 was actually lower than in 1951. The population of Northern Ireland was 1.65m in 1841, and only 1.69m in 2001.
The population density of England is 4 persons per hectare; of Greater Manchester 5; of the South-East 4.5. But of Northern Ireland it’s only 1.3 and of Scotland only 0.7 – barely a sixth of the population density of England.
Much of the UK is not remotely full and has not experienced any material rise in population that makes immigrants difficult to absorb. Indeed, for Scotland and Northern Ireland and parts of North-East and South-West England, there would be great benefits from having more population, not simply because of the cultural excitement and diversity and work ethic that immigrants bring, but for the more brute reason that it would be good to have more persons.
Thus, a rational immigration policy for the UK might say that if you want to come to live in the UK from abroad, then unless you meet some special criteria that would allow you to live or work in the high-population areas, you must live and work in the low-population areas.
There appear to be two significant barriers to such a concept – one practical and one political.
The practical one is that we’ve tended to treat immigrants, once they are let in, as standard members of British society. And we don’t tell Britons which bits of the country they have to live or work in. That doesn’t seem too insuperable to me. I don’t see why we couldn’t have an “immigrant pass-card” system whereby immigrants had, say for the first ten or twenty years they were here, to carry a sort of ID card (I would be totally opposed to any ID card system for British nationals, but by definition we aren’t talking about British nationals here) which granted them the right to live and work in certain parts of Britain but not others.
So if you are not a British national and you apply for a job, you have to show the employer your pass-card to prove you are entitled to work in that business. Similarly, in order to purchase or rent a house, you have to show your pass-card to demonstrate you are entitled to live in that part of the country.
Obviously some people might claim that they weren’t immigrants at all and so by-pass the system (I’m not proposing that British nationals should have to prove they are British nationals to work or rent property) but if they did that it would be fraud and punished severely if discovered. (Think of the way we vote – we just turn up and say who we are without having to prove it, and of course someone could lie but to do so would be a very serious offence.)
I see no reason a system along these lines couldn’t be made to work. But the political problem is more intractable. It is this: the Conservatives, who care most about immigration, would be terrified of proposing a system of diverting immigrants into non-Conservative seats in Scotland and North-East England. They would assume that that would be political suicide – indeed, might even undermine the Union or even the internal integrity of England. I’m sceptical that immigration would really be as unpopular in those thinly-populated areas as Conservatives assume, but I don’t really know and I struggle to believe the Conservative hierarchy could be persuaded to support such a policy no matter how economically and socially rational it was.
So we may have to let Labour deal with this one, unless perhaps we could achieve some kind of cross-party consensus. Royal Commission, anyone?