A casual reading of today’s papers would suggest that John Major has put himself at odds with David Cameron’s immigration policy. It is hard to see how the context or the quotes justify this view. The former Prime Minister was speaking during an interview with Peter Hennessy, the history, for a programme entitled Reflections, and his comments, as that title suggests, were backward-looking. Sir John was revisiting his Brixton childhood when he said when he was growing up during the 1950s “I didn’t see people who had come here just to benefit from our social system. I saw people with guts and the drive to travel halfway across the world in many cases to better themselves and their families. And I think that is a very Conservative instinct.”
That the drive to better yourself and your family sits comfortably with conservatism isn’t in doubt. (Even UKIP concedes that most immigrants come to Britain seeking work, not benefits.) Perhaps Sir John was indeed signalling in a roundabout way that the Tories ought to say so – and more often – to help to persuade Britain’s ethnic minorities that their values are more Conservative than Labour, and that their votes should follow where those values lead. If so, he had a good point. But to claim that it follows that government should simply fling open the door to Britain, or that most ethnic minority voters would welcome such a move, is wrong. Polling evidence suggests that, like other Britons, they want immigration to be limited. Sir John said nothing to the contrary
They and others also welcome people who bring wealth and prosperity to the country – though even in this case there will always be an impact on infrastructure and public services. This is why there should be a cap. Theresa May has worked relentlessly to bring the number down to meet the Government’s target – closing bogus colleges, toughening the language and income requirements for migrants, raising the age at which spouses enter. But she is powerless to control immigration from the EU. Sooner or later, the British people must make a choice in that elusive referendum. Do they want to leave the EU, and regain control of our borders? Or do they want to stay – and thus concede that control is offset by economic and political gains, as they see them?
This site is for leaving the EU. Voters may decide otherwise. But if they do not, and Britain quits, the way would be clear for a more rational immigration policy. A cap would be set on the number of people who enter each year. Full access to public services, benefits and tax credits would have to be earned – with it dependent on reaching a threshold level of tax contributions. New immigrants would be required to purchase their own health and welfare cover through a system of social insurance, to which employers would also contribute. This squeeze would allow a less restrictive policy on visas for tourists and foreign students – greater numbers of which would be a boost to our economy and British “soft power”.
Conservative policy already points in such a direction. Cameron already wants to restrict the access of EU migrants to out of work benefits. George Osborne, this very morning, is floating restrictions on lower paid migrants use of the personal tax allowance. Liam Fox has argued for ditching the net migration target, and going for one which measures actual numbers. Nick Boles has said that all non-EU migrants should be required to pay a surety deposit on entry. None of this is inconsistent with the points put by Sir John. And the indispensable means of winning more ethnic minority votes (a cause near the heart of this site) is having a presence in the urban and suburban constituencies where they tend to be concentrated – not abandoning the ideal of controlled immigration.