Immigration policy: when evidence actually counted for something
The rightwing blogosphere and mainstream press is predictably awash with outraged bile at the ‘revelations’, from an Evening Standard journalist, and one time Special Adviser to the Labour party, that Labour had an evil secret plan to introduce a multi-cultural Britain just to rub the Tories’ nose in it.
Let’s set aside for a moment the little inconvenience that the Special Adviser/journalist, Andrew Neather didn’t really mean what he said, and that in today’s Evening Standard he seeks desperately to set out what he did mean. If he’s been hoist by his own desperate-to-sound-terribly-relevant-and-advance-my-career-at-the-expense-of-my-poltical-integrity petard, then there’s little I can do about it, though I do feel a bit sorry for him.
Where the Standard and the Telegraph lead, so follow Dale and his trolls (go on look at the 172 comments, I can’t bear to). And where the Telegraph goes, so goes that ever so balanced think-tank Migration Watch:
“Now at least the truth is out, and it’s dynamite. Many have long suspected that mass immigration under Labour was not just a cock up but also a conspiracy. They were right. This Government has admitted three million immigrants for cynical political reasons concealed by dodgy economic camouflage.”
And where the ever so balanced Migration Watch goes, so goes that loveable old Labour maverick, Frank Field:
“I am speechless at the idea that people thought they could socially engineer a nation on this basis.” (to the Standard); and
“We welcome this statement by an ex-adviser, which the whole country knows to be true. It is the first beam of truth that has officially been shone on the immigration issue in Britain.” (to the Telegraph)
Frank Field, eh? What a twat!
And so on it rolls.
Today, the Evening Standard calls for a ‘probe’ into the revelations, apparently unconcerned that Neather, writes on the very same day and in the very same paper that his views have been utterly misrepresented (I don’t suppose Dale will be quoting from that too much).
And when you’re on a rightwing troll-roll like this, why bother with anything so inconvenient as the truth?
For the unpalatable truth is that to assign the ‘multicultural’ motive to the Labour party’s immigration policy is simply ludicrous, and so far from any vaguely sane interpretation of actual events that it would be laughable – if they weren’t getting away with it.
By fortunate coincidence for people who like the odd bit of reason and common sense to go with their politics, in the very same week that Andrew Neather sought to use the BNP’s appearance on Question Time to advance his own commentariat career, a young academic published a paper in the UK best-respected political science journal, summarising the findings of his PhD; in it he tells us what really took place, and in so doing utterly debunks the right’s ‘ZanuLiebour’ fantasies.
Dr Alex Balch’s paper is called ‘Labour and Epistemic Communities: The Case of ‘Managed Migration’ in the UK.’
For those with the correct passwords in academia it is available here, or find British Journal of Politics and International Relations (2009) Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 616-636).
I have asked Alex, with whom I once had a couple of beers in the Cambridge Arms in Liverpool (but that’s another story), to see if he can allow free access to his work given its sudden and unexpected relevance, and he’s seeing what he can do. For the time being, you’ll have to trust my review of his article and the quotations I use.
What Dr Balch’s paper shows very clearly is that immigration policy, or what came to be called ‘migration policy’, was driven almost exclusively by considerations of economic growth and labour shortages in key areas, and had pretty well nothing at all to do with multi-culturalism.
Balch says of Barbara Roche, MP (Home Officer Minister, 1999-2001):
“She was very keen to differentiate the question of policy towards asylum seekers from a new policy of ‘managed migration’. This new policy focus would be open and responsive to evidence and expertise on migration in general, but the question this research was supposed to address was clearly formulated in purely economic terms”
He then quotes a speech by Roche in 2000:
”In the past we have thought purely about immigration control … Now we need to think about immigration management … The evidence shows that economically driven migration can bring substantial overall benefits for both growth and the economy.”
And far from their being the kind of subterfuge that the right would now have us believe in, this is what Balch has to say about Tony Blair’s personal involvement:
“The story goes that without the hindrance of political considerations Blair was convinced by the arguments for managing migration in the economic interest of the country and recommended that the report be published. Clearly, the narrative chimed elegantly with the pro-business agenda, and openness to cultural diversity and so-called ‘Third Way’ global capitalism.”
An openness to ‘cultural diversity’ which ‘chimes’ with the main economic growth theme is hardly the same as a devilish plan to swamp the country with people with funny languages and abhorrent ways.
Thus, the REAL story set out in the article, and in Alex’s PhD, is one of a then new Labour government, and at least some of its newly emboldened and temporarily empowered staffers/officials, trying to enact its commitment to ‘evidenced-based policy’, and to do so openly – more openly, indeed, than its civil servants were comfortable with, as this quote from one civil servant interviewee makes clear:
”There were people in the Home Office who were saying ‘come on, we’ve got to change policy—the old approach of simply keeping people out is not tenable’, and there were the operational people in the Home Office at IND who were effectively saying ‘there is only one political imperative: keep people out!’, but the people at Queen Anne’s Gate were arguing that it is more complex than that, more nuanced.”
Such was the relative openness of the new approach, in fact, that it became competitive:
”Whichever way publication was eventually sanctioned, there was then a political clamour to champion the new approach and assume ownership.”
Is this the narrative of subterfuge? Is this the stuff of action which, 10 years on, warrants a ‘probe’? Is the right talking talking utter, uninformed bollox?
The real tragedy, of course, is that Labour lost its way, and the courage of its initial convictions.
Instead of politicians continuing to take on board what experts had to say, and using the information to take honest decisions in the best interests of the country, the backslide into the world of ‘political imperatives’ started in the mid 2000s.
As Balch notes, while the government took the decision in the light of the evidence available NOT to “impose transitionary arrangement on A8 nationals” (from East European countries due to enter the EU) in 2002, by 2007 (when Romania and Bulgaria became EU members) the way of doing things had changed:
”In contrast to 2002 this decision was taken against expert opinion. Here the managed migration frame was displaced by a political imperative to respond to public concerns over immigration levels (despite the likelihood that A2 migration would be on a different scale to A8 migration).”
And so it is depressing, but not unexpected, to see today’s reaction from Jack Straw spokesman for a call for a ‘probe’. Instead of being open about what the new policy of the early 2000s was all about, the concern is to play to the rightwing crowd:
”This [the call for a 'probe'] is complete rubbish and the proof of that is the fact that Jack Straw introduced and was implementing the Immigration and Asylum Act at just this time, which tightened up controls.”
The real tragedy is that the likes of Dale are now able to get away with fact-free rants about immigration policy, and that he can simply take as given that his readers will assume that immigration as a concept is wholly detestable, and that any gains made a few years ago in the argument that immigration might enrich the UK have been so wholly lost.
The real tragedy is that Alex Massie’s unexpectedly admirable piece in the Spectator today, in which he argues both free-market and moral case for freedom of movement of labour (see my own contribution here) is disregarded as the ranting of someone out of touch with the real world, and as evidence of the new editor’s independence’, rather than a serious contribution to the immigration debate (though hats off to Hopi for supporting it).
Dr Alex Balch’s research paper is as detailed and authoritative as you would expect from someone gaining their PhD from it. It’s set within a solid epistemological framework of new institutionalism, and sets out to show how ‘epistemic communities’ influence the reframing of policy.
Alex’s research paper not a hysterical knee-jerk reaction to the BNP being on TV, combined with the spotting of an opportunity to batter the Labour party via the words of a shoddy journalist who has made up his version of events to suit his editor’s line and his own career prospects (notwithstanding his laudable attempt today to say sorry).
For those reasons, I think the right is likely to see little value in Alex’s research paper.
As Alex himself sets out, quoting a Home Office civil servant on governments prior to 1997:
”Immigration law in this country has developed mainly as a series of responses to, and attempts to regulate, particular pressures, rather than as a positive means of achieving preconceived social or economic aims.”
With a new Conservative government, or even a new New Labour government, we’ll have more of that to look forward to.
Perhaps that’s why, as a serious researcher into migration policy, Alex is currently in the United States.