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 abroad were vital for the NHS when public spending began to rise in 1999. Business lobbied very effectively for liberalisation, Whitehall was mainly in favour, and there was a network of NGOs and legal campaigners who also pushed to keep the door as wide as possible.
There is one more significant factor in all this: the pro-immigration, pro-diversity, assumption not just of the Cool Britannia left-of-centre but of a large part of the metropolitan middle class, who were not only comfortable with an increasingly multi-racial Britain, but also benefited economically from the cheap labour that flowed in. Meanwhile much of the political and administrative class believed that large inward flows were simply a fact of modern life.
A distinctively New Labour combination of economic and cultural liberalism was the backdrop to Britain’s great opening of the late 1990s. But notwithstanding the careless manner in which historic decisions have been taken, it would be wrong to say that things were completely made up on the hoof. There have been six major acts of Parliament relating to asylum and immigration since 1997—and Tony Blair spent a huge amount of time on asylum when popular anxiety was at its peak. There have also been anguished national debates about immigration and integration in the light of the 2001 race riots in the north of England and, of course, the 7/7 bombings. But Labour policy has been an odd mix of restriction and frenetic intervention on asylum for example, combined with benign neglect on the broader national purpose of mass immigration.
Belatedly, in the past couple of years the government has put in place a more coherent system of immigration control. There is now a points based system which should restrict work-related immigration to those people the country really needs, and electronic biometric-based border controls will soon count people in and out.
Moreover, aware of the popularity of the Tory plan for an annual immigration cap, the government is preparing to retreat from its laissez-faire approach to overall population growth. Labour has been jolted by the success of anti-mass-immigration lobby groups like Migration Watch and is now prepared to accept that overall numbers do matter. Expect to hear more on this from Alan Johnson or Gordon Brown.
But when historians come to look back on this period in 100 years time they will surely conclude that, as John Seeley said of the expansion of the British empire, we acquired a whole new population in a “fit of absence of mind.”
Analysis: Foreigner Policy is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 8th February at 8.30pm
Hear David Goodhart discuss national identity at Bath Literature Festival: "Can you still be proud to be British?" takes place on Saturday 27 Feb, 1pm - 2pm. Further details: www.bathlitfest.org.uk/prospectbritain