|March 01, 2007
London's migrants are proof of our success
Published in the Evening Standard
Watch out, here comes another one. Give it sixty seconds and there will be one more. By the time the hour is up there'll be sixty, a steady march of them that none of us can stop. Or to put it as plainly as the full-page advertisement that appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph: "A migrant a minute is entering Britain."
Well, it makes a change from the aquatic imagery usually deployed by the anti-immigration lobby: normally we're "flooded" or "swamped" by a "rising tide" of newcomers, as if the British Isles themselves were about to sink under the weight. The so-called Speakout campaign which paid for yesterday's ad have gone for a different, though equally doom-laden approach - the ticking clock, evoking a countdown to some terrible midnight.
Theirs is a howl of rage against the arrival into this country of hundreds of thousands of Eastern Europeans since the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004. To quote the ad: "Without a debate or vote in Parliament, our elected MPs have handed control of our borders to the European Union, allowing unlimited immigration into Britain from EU countries."
It would be easy to dismiss the Speakout crowd as a retread of the Referendum Party or UK Independence Party: the same strain of Europhobia is visible (along with some of the same people, like the millionaire former UKIP backer Paul Sykes). That prejudice is hardly allayed when you click onto the 'Who we are' segment of the Speakout website and learn the answer: "A group of northern businessmen."
But a metropolitan sneer at the xenophobic industrialists of Bradford and Barnsley is not good enough. For they are not the only ones discussing immigration as if it were a threat to be tamed. Just this week the very Labour government Speakout so despise showed the extent to which it too is wary of allowing too many newcomers to cross the British threshold. Immigration minister Liam Byrne trumpeted as great news figures showing applications for asylum down by 9%, to their lowest level since 1993. At the same time, Gordon Brown demanded immigrants undertake community work before they be allowed to become British citizens. Both were doubtless keen to divert attention from another new set of statistics, showing that some 579,000 Eastern Europeans have registered to work in Britain since their countries joined the EU in 2004 - a figure which ministers admit could, if anything, be a serious underestimate.
On all fronts the government acts as if Speakout were essentially right: that immigration is a problem and that if we can keep more people out, then that can only be good. Nowhere should that feeling be more pronounced than in London, the most diverse city in the country and a magnet for migrants.
Yet so far we seem to be managing. It is not our businessmen who are taking out full-page ads in the national press to denounce migration. On the contrary it has become a fact of London life, from the Polish deli on every street corner to the Lithuanian nannies at the school gate.
And the evidence seems to bear out what we see anecdotally. Last week [check] the accountancy group PricewaterhouseCoopers released a report showing that, far from acting as a drain on our economy, migrants have lifted it, boosting growth, keeping a lid on inflation and interest rates without undermining the jobs of those born here. That's partly because, simply put, the Poles and others are doing jobs native-born Brits either can't or won't do.
This is why supporting immigration is no longer the exclusive preserve of right-on types in Hackney. Survey opinion among the Economist-readers in the City and they too will make the case for open borders. Philippe Legrain, author of the rousing polemic, Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them, puts it well when he says that if Britain wants the kind of migrants Speakout would doubtless welcome - American bankers, say - then it has to have people who will "sell those bankers sandwiches and clean their houses."
What's more the Polish builders and Slovak plumbers are not on benefits, they work hard and most go home after a while. The proof of their economic impact is clearest when you consider that Britain was the EU country most open to immigrants in 2004 - and is now the best-performing economy in Europe.
Still, even if Londoners have come to see immigration in a new, more positive light, a question remains. Surely there will come a time when London, open and welcoming as it is, will simply reach its limit, a point at which it is unable to absorb any more people? Our roads are already congested, our Tube trains full, our housing in short supply and cripplingly expensive and our public services creaking under the strain. Put plainly, how much more can London take?
Legrain is unworried. His book cites the case of Israel, which in the 1990s saw its workforce increase by 15% within