Mrs May observed that mass immigration is incompatible with a cohesive society if proper preparations are not made for large numbers of new arrivals. She said if we are going to have more people then we need more schools, more homes, more doctors and better transport infrastructure. This is especially true in London and the South East, where most immigrants settle.
Most voters would consider this analysis to be uncontroversial, and yet she has been accused of harsh rhetoric and lurching to the Right. A blizzard of statistics has been deployed purporting to show that there is a net benefit to Britain of high immigration and that she was wrong to say that indigenous workers are losing their jobs as a consequence. But figures can be produced to substantiate the points she made, too. This debate is ultimately futile.
The fact is that this country has experienced by far the highest levels of immigration in its history over the past 20 years and few, if any, preparations were made for it. Those who say it has been good for the country may well be right; but they are making a post hoc virtue out of something that was never intended. Until 1997, it was assumed that net migration would continue at around the 50,000 mark for the foreseeable future. The figure is now six times that. No government can ignore the impact of such a change.
Mrs May still seems wedded to the notion that net immigration can be reduced to below 100,000 – a five-year target set in 2010 and missed by a mile.
The Home Secretary should not be so fixated on an arbitrary and unachievable ambition, though she could consider changing the statistical base. After all, why should students from overseas and British people coming home be included in the immigration figures at all? The Institute of Directors is right to say that Britain must always be open to the brightest and the best from around the world but, equally, business should take the lead in training young Britons with the skills they need to be world beaters. In education too, more needs to be done to ensure that school leavers are qualified to succeed in the global jobs marketplace.
What this government – any government – must do is set out a policy that identifies who we want in the country and those we don’t, enabling the former to come while dissuading the latter. That is the essence of an immigration policy. The same is true of asylum: it should not be contentious to say that while we will offer sanctuary to people in genuine fear of persecution, those who are not bona fide refugees should be removed.
But two obstacles remain. First, controlling who comes is impossible for as long as Britain is part of the EU’s free movement of labour provisions – and changing benefit qualifications will affect that only at the margins. Second, it is already the case that illegitimate asylum seekers should be deported but most aren’t. In a speech that was more thoughtful than she is being given credit for, Mrs May correctly identified the problems brought about by the great migration. Whether she is any closer to a solution is another matter entirely.