John Major’s Immigration Comments, And The Tory Dilemma

John Major Immigration


In a blast from the past, former prime minister John Major, continuing his recent trend of interventions in the British political debate, has made headlines for supposedly contradicting David Cameron’s stance on immigration.

The Huffington Post reports:

In an apparent snub to David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister said it was admirable that people coming to the UK had the “guts and the drive” to travel thousands of miles to Britain in order to improve their lives, not just to “benefit from our social system”.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 programme Reflections with Peter Hennessy, he continued: “I saw immigrants at very close quarters in the 1950s and I didn’t see people who had come here just to benefit from our social system.

“I saw people with the guts and the drive to travel halfway across the world in many cases to better themselves and their families. And I think that’s a very Conservative instinct.”

Of course, John Major is absolutely right. People who make the long journey to Britain in order to build a better life for themselves and their families are highly likely to have drive, ambition and work ethic in greater degrees than the average sedentary Brit. But in seeking to create a story in the middle of political slow news season, many media outlets (including the BBC) have been somewhat disingenuous in the way that they presented Major’s remarks.

The former prime minister was quite specific that he was talking about the kind of immigration that he saw first-hand, growing up and living with his family in Brixton, London. The immigration profile at that time was light years away from the current breakdown of immigration in the 21st century, and crucially did not include large numbers of European immigrants coming to Britain availing themselves of their rights under the EU’s common market. In John Major’s youth, the EU and the dream of ever-closer union was but a twinkle in the eye of the era’s political leaders.

The 1950s did see a period of mass immigration, but it was not of the same scale in absolute numbers and was mostly immigration from the Commonwealth as British passport holders born overseas took advantage of their right to settle in the mother country. To speak in praise of immigration from this era is not necessarily to contradict the government’s efforts to reduce net immigration in the year 2014. Thus it is disingenuous for the British media to take John Major’s praise of a 1950s phenomenon and translate it into criticism of 21st century policy.

The one area where John Major is absolutely right, and was not misrepresented by the media, is his claim that many immigrants do indeed have quite conservative instincts at heart. This instinct can be broken down into two types – social conservatism (particularly the case for immigrants from heavily Catholic countries) and fiscal conservatism. The worry for the Tories is that they are completely failing to tap into either of these sentiments or to build meaningful levels of support among recent immigrants.

But how can the government go about doing this while honouring its pledge to reduce overall net immigration? There is a narrow tightrope to walk between responding to public concern about the current immigration rate and making it clear to existing immigrants that they are welcome, encouraging them to assimilate as quickly as possible and then reaching out to them to turn them into Conservative voters. The margin for error is small, but it should still be possible.

Many recent immigrants come from countries that only a few decades ago struggled to escape from under the heavy yoke of Soviet communism – think Poland or Slovakia as prime examples. There is a love and appreciation for capitalism and the free market among many Poles and Slovaks that is often absent from indigenous British people, who tend to take our system for granted or focus only on its faults. And at a time when Ed Miliband’s Labour party seem to offer heavy regulation and re-nationalisation as their only policy prescriptions, the Conservatives have a ripe opportunity to show that their vision of lower taxes and greater freedom will deliver for everyone in the UK, immigrants firmly included.

There is also political capital to be made in toughening up the rules around access to benefits for newly arrived immigrants. The notion that newly arrived immigrants should be allowed to claim support from a system which they have never contributed towards is just as galling to a Polish family settled in Britain for five years and paying taxes as it would be to any UK citizen. But successfully arguing this point would require deft and precise use of language so that the media has no opportunity to run with the false trope that the evil Tories believe that all immigrants are benefit-scrounging parasites.

In short, the areas where the Conservative party (and indeed UKIP) currently alienate immigrants tend to be around the semantics and tone of the debate, whereas their actual policy prescriptions (maximum freedom, low taxes) make an ideal fit for many prospective immigrant voters.

But the Conservatives should have absolutely no expectations that the media, or the Labour Party, will lift a finger to guide immigrants toward this truth. In fact, if the twisting of John Major’s words today is anything to go by, the opposite will take place – the Conservatives will be painted as heartless and cruel in wanting to enforce stricter entrance criteria, while the many negative ways that Labour policies have the potential to hurt economic migrants will be glossed over and excused.

The irony is that British immigration policy tends to only affect new immigrants once – at the point they enter the UK to settle and work. From that point onward, once they are safely settled and working in Britain, the issue becomes largely irrelevant. Ed Miliband and the Labour Party have thus far managed to coast along on the assumption that they will win the lion’s share of the recent immigrant vote because they tend to advocate for a more laissez-faire border policy. But there is absolutely no reason why this should be the case.

The Conservatives have a compelling message to offer those recent immigrants who will go to the ballot box for the first time in 2015. It is a message of liberty and personal responsibility which should resonate strongly with just the type of people who took a huge risk in packing up their lives and moving to Britain. But for all his well-intentioned words, John Major failed to deliver that message in a way that cut through the skewed agenda of the news editors.

David Cameron and the Conservative Party urgently needs charismatic MPs and councillors to step up, refine and then start sharing this new message, this Conservative pact with recent immigrants. If they do not rise to the challenge, Labour will win the immigrant vote by default once again.

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