Since Labour came to power Britain has experienced its largest wave of immigration ever. It may turn out to be New Labour’s most significant legacy. Yet it seems to have happened almost by accidentby David Goodhart / February 8, 2010 / Leave a comment
Since Labour’s 1997 election victory 1.6m people have been granted permanent right of residence in Britain, mainly from developing countries. And in 2008 24 per cent of all births in England and Wales were to foreign-born mothers, rising to nearly 50 per cent in London. Strikingly, however, at no point in the last 12 years does there seem to have been a strategic discussion in cabinet about the purpose of much higher levels of immigration.
In the course of making an Analysis programme for BBC Radio 4 on New Labour and mass immigration, I discovered that the final decision to open Britain’s labour market to—as it turned out—more than 1m eastern Europeans was taken by a small group of officials and special advisers before an EU council of ministers meeting in Brussels.
An accumulation of small decisions, all of them perfectly rational and sensible in their own right, has led to a mighty big—and pretty unpopular—outcome. So why did it happen? There were two big background factors: much cheaper mass transit and Britain as a “magnet” both economically and culturally. Our fast growing economy—at least for most of the last 12 years—plus a deregulated labour market meant jobs galore at all skill levels. Then there is the pull of the English language and the “London effect”—a city with communities from all around the world.
But the magnet effect needed some political decisions from government to open the door—and between 1997 and 2003 there were four significant ones. First, there was the abolition of the so-called primary purpose rule, which had the effect of significantly raising the immigration of foreign spouses.
Second, the introduction of the Human Rights Act made it harder to clamp down on the asylum wave which began to rise sharply in 1999 to over 70,000 a year. Third was a liberalisation of student visas and work permits, both of which more than doubled after 1997. Finally, and most significant of all for the fabric of British life, was a decision to open the British labour market to the new eastern European and Baltic EU states, seven years before any other big EU state. As is now well known more than 1m people came after 2004.
All of these, with the exception of the primary purpose rule, had persuasive non-immigration rationales too. Foreign students helped to pay for an expanded higher education system. More nurses and doctors from…