Britain and immigration
Keep open the gates
The Conservatives should not risk Britain's future prosperity on a flawed bid to cut immigration
WHEN David Cameron declared his intention last year to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, this newspaper gave a cautious cheer. Although we felt there was a risk the Conservative prime minister was bending too far to the Eurosceptics in his party,who happily ignore the enormous economic cost Britain would incur by leaving the union, the issue had become so divisive that we believed Britons should get a say on the subject. We were also encouraged that Mr Cameron made a rousing case for Britain's EU membership, which he vowed to fortify and improve by campaigning for badly needed EU-wide reforms ahead of the promised vote. He needs to restate that commitment, because the recent talk from Number 10 about curbing immigration from the EU risks giving the opposite impression: of a weak and unprincipled ruling party that is prepared to gamble Britain's national interest on a policy shaped by populists.
Britain's contradictory feelings towards immigration reflect the peculiarities of its history. On the one hand, the country's success is rooted in openness—in exploration, conquest and trade. Most Britons are not racist, which makes their country especially appealing to the millions of immigrants who have created much of its wealth. On the other hand, Britain is a bristling island nation, with a deep-seated fear of invasion. Its people worry inordinately about the economic and cultural side-effects of immigration—and are prone to scaremongers, a role which the increasingly formidable UK Independence Party (UKIP) is now filling. Its two main causes are leaving the European Union and reducing immigration.
Mr Cameron has lost one by-election to UKIP and faces the prospect of losing another in a few weeks and seeing his base eroded in a general election next spring, so it is hardly surprising that he has moved to the right. But the jump has been large and rapid. Last year, when he unveiled his EU reform strategy, Mr Cameron did not mention immigration as an area of concern. His target was red tape, not the liberal migration regime that is one of the union's main strengths. Since then the Tories have said they want to restrict benefits to immigrants and make citizens from future EU member countries wait longer before they are allowed to work in Britain. Now Mr Cameron is talking about “fixing” immigration to Britain from the EU, while his advisers have floated the idea of an “emergency brake” on immigration beyond a certain level from even existing EU members. All will be revealed in a speech soon.