There is much bewilderment at Amber Rudd’s announcement yesterday that she has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to come up with evidence on the needs of the UK for migrants, reporting back at what seems to be the late date of September 2018. Why so late? Article 50 negotiations have us on schedule for being out the EU by the end of March 2019. Is it really the case that the UK will only have six months to scramble for its replacement for the current system of freedom of movement?
One of the complaints, made most loudly by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is that if the Conservatives were so keen to see immigration policy established on a firm evidence-base they would have gone to the MAC at a much early date to ensure that every minute of the processes of leaving the EU was put to good use in drafting a spanking new, entirely British immigration policy. But the deeper truth concerns the claims governments make for ‘evidence-based’ policy and why this itself is subject to political contingencies which allows it to be turned on and off as the circumstances require.
Think back to September 2000 when the then immigration minister, Barbara Roche, made a famous speech announcing she was ditching prejudice to ensure that the management of the movement of people would henceforth be based on objective facts.Roche’s speech did not bring to an end the deeply entrenched view that foreign immigrants have a tendency to being trouble for British society, but it did mean that for a while at least this was checked by considerations of their value to economy that was finding labour power an ever-scarcer commodity. The Treasury had more than one eye on the ‘bottlenecks’ caused by the shortage of workers that it saw building up across crucial sectors and it accordingly played an important role in opening up the jobs market to nationals of the eight accession countries that joined the EU in 2004.
Accession country immigration
Objective appraisal of the economic consequences strongly supports the view that this was not the foolish move that many have subsequently claimed. Yes, large numbers came to the country after that date, but the vast majority were rapidly absorbed into a flexible labour market which was driving GDP growth rates along at the cracking rate of around 2.7% per annum. Claims that they were responsible for creating a low wage economy were belied by the evidence which showed that the slump in the wages structure had its roots back in the 1980s, arising from the decimation of employment in manufacturing and the subsequent expansion of the service sector. In case anyone missed the point, the 1980s were long years of zero net migration. Migrants, in the main, merely slotted into a wages structure that had been created years before, and allowed the businesses that had been established on these principles to prosper as never before.
If the economic facts of large-scale inward migration were not fatal to the ambition for ‘evidenced-based policy’, something else was around that did for it. The volume of newcomers clearly rattled large sections of the population who took to wondering why so much Polish was being spoken on the high streets. This in itself is not a question that ought to be regarded as surprising, but it was the total hash made by politicians – particularly those on the centre left – in their stumbling efforts to answer it that moved the balance of public opinion more firmly in the direction of xenophobic anxiety. Narratives of controls as being ‘not fit for purpose’, advanced as much by Labour Home Secretaries as editorials in the Sun or Mail, put the political elites as much as the average citizen in panic mode and the two forces became mutually reinforcing.
So ‘evidence-based policy’ was ditched in favour of spurious targets to ‘bring down net migration to the tens of thousands’ on one side of the divide, and the mass manufacturing to red mugs with the slogan ‘control immigration’ on the other. Not very edifying. And as long as the debate about immigration was subordinate to higher priorities, like getting Britain out the EU, or even just being elected to government, then the spinning of fantasy policies could go ahead without any sense that they needed to have at least some relationship of objective circumstances.
Though there has been quite a log tail in which nonsense policies have continued to have their advocates, the referendum result has finally brought this phase of the great public conversation on immigration to an end. The sheer necessity to avoid a catastrophic collapse of businesses across important sectors of the economy has meant that even a Conservative Home Secretary has had to thrash around for some sort of solid rock to cling to. Where was that little committee we had set up to give us a prop for the fiddly bits of our policies? Ah yes – the Migration Advisory Committee: welcome gentlemen, and give us a hand in getting out of this rather dangerous place.
Okay – so that’s the reason why Rudd has now turned to a group of eminent scholars with long years at looking at labour markets behind them to get some sense of the pitfalls immediately ahead and what might be done to avoid them. But why the late date for the report?
To answer this we need to project ahead to where we can expect to be with Brexit negotiations towards the back end of next year. It will not be pretty. So many things are likely to be unresolved and a real sense of panic – already present in the discussion – will be rampant. The truly difficult stuff over access to the single market, customs union, tariffs and all that will be confusing the British public rather than mobilising them into action on the streets, so the way will still be open to deals on transitional arrangements or whatever to handle those. But immigration? If the people who really care about this issue and thought that Brexit would be the way out are not appeased then the Tory party could be seeing revolts across its ranks that will be savage in their effect.
MAC to the rescue
There are few bright lights in this scenario that a Home Secretary can use to guide her way through this mess, and particularly not for one who not-so-secretly believes Brexit is an act of insanity. The best that can be hoped for is that, so late in the day, someone will step into an impossibly heated argument about the immigration policy the country needs with a set of proposals that appear to address the objective facts of the situation and can be presented as politically non-partisan.
If this is the function that the MAC report is expected to play then we have the complete understanding why Rudd wants its finding to come out so close to the end of Article 50 negotiations. She knows that its recommendations will be scrutinised and picked-over by Brexiteers with a closeness that will not apply to any other issue on the ‘leave’ agenda. Back-sliding on the promise to take back control of our borders will feel like a far worse betrayal than anything to do with customs tariffs or the single market. A Home Secretary who wants to stay ahead of the game will want to limit the time that opponents of MAC’s recommendations will have to mobilise against them should they be in a direction which favours a relatively liberal immigration regime in which the lineaments of freedom of movement can still be recognised.
So that’s the plan. The eminences of the MAC will have around 14 months to prepare a report that is dense with statistics and case studies that basically make the business case for fairly open borders. It will be published with a fanfare of approval from the CEOs of transnational corporations as well as their smaller counterparts representing sections like tourism, social care, food production and construction. The vice-chancellors of the grandest universities will be there to cheer the result, and the financial press will deliver its judgement that disaster has been averted.
The six months remaining to the die-hard Brexiteers will not be sufficient to undo this consensus and they will have to fall back on a plan B which will involve monitoring the quarterly immigration statistics to see whether there has been any great reduction in net migration. The controversy will die down for the time being and some sort of policy to handle post-Brexit immigration in the period after March 2019 will be rolled out in a fairly brief Act of Parliament, which might even get the consent of all the parties.
What’s not to like about this cunning plan? If you are at the helm of a business of any shape or form it looks like a genius stroke. Politicians across the centre-left and centre-right part of the spectrum will welcome the heat being drawn from what has always been a rancorous debate. The dissenters will be the hard-line anti-immigrant people who would pay any price in terms of economic slow-down if only it meant less foreigners speaking their babble on our public transport, and of course the migrants, who will have seen the rights they currently have vanish in the wash.
That last point, for me, is a good reason to watch the MAC inquiry very closely over the next year. The inquiry was not set up for this purpose, but we ought to be thinking of ways to get it to consider the cost of diminishing the rights of this group of migrants, which can be expect to be experienced in a number of ways, from an increase in exploitation through to the withdrawal of this group of workers from the labour force. The positive side of the EU’s freedom of movement policies – which have provided for rights to equality of treatment, security of residence, opportunities for family reunion and protection from discrimination – are too important to be traded away in order to keep the querulous native British masses in their place.