OPINION - There's an uncomfortable truth about immigration, but neither Keir Starmer nor Rishi Sunak dare say it

A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)
A group of people thought to be migrants are brought into Dover, Kent, following a small boat incident in the Channel (Gareth Fuller/PA) (PA Wire)

Cheerful news: Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England governor, thinks the economic outlook for the year ahead is “worst I have ever seen” — a challenge of such severity that it should be the main preoccupation of both the Government and its possible Labour heirs. Instead, fizzing anxiety at Westminster has been unleashed by the release of last year’s immigration figures, showing a surge to some three-quarters of a million people with the audacity to view the United Kingdom as an attractive place to live.

No doubt immigration is sorely testing the old consensus of open doors across Europe — from the far-Right Geert Wilders’s win in the Netherlands to Germany’s centre Left-led coalition anxiously pledging to speed up removals of failed asylum seekers and hardening border controls. But the response to the 2022 annual figure of 745,000 net migration has been a spasm of exaggerated horror among Tories facing an electoral bushtucker trial election year — with a fundamental self-inflicted flaw to confront and Nigel Farage about to return to the barricades.

Controlled immigration is a reasonable pledge for leaders to make. But hard targets on minimising numbers, while needing to sustain labour- intensive service industries and an NHS and care system reliant on ready streams of workers, are a recipe for repeated failure.

One of the things London has on its side is the fact that a lot of people born a long way away want to be here

London is a particular magnet (two-fifths of us were born outside the UK) and also a place that proves the point immigration hardliners would most like to avoid: the economic bounceback of the capital since Covid is in great part possible because the city sucks in people strongly motivated to work. In the professions and financial services this new blood is also part of the talent race which helps London keep international advantages. That has offset the deterrent effects of Brexit — and also confounded the more dire predictions about its impacts.

But it’s a precarious weighing of public opinion, which relies on balancing pledges to deter illegal migration — and a defence of the many merits of the legal variety. If the Rwanda plan approach is draconian, the question of repeat incursions of small boats does need an answer that cannot simply be dismissed by saying the problem only annoys the kind of people urban liberals do not much like to listen to. Badly run asylum systems invariably cause anger and need redress, if they are not to turn into more toxic moods.

That is not to be confused with the benefits of keeping the doors open to people who benefit the economy. Indeed the public seems to have got this message ahead of the Government (and an opposition happy to deflect a question denting the PM’s teetering authority).

The recent Social Attitudes survey points to a paradox. Britain has some of the most positive attitudes to immigration among its international peers. That is a reading that has changed for the better since the EU referendum — and the likeliest conclusion is that people are keen on clear rules and implementation about who comes into the country, but tolerant towards those who come legally.

The political response, however, has been to promise restrictions on immigration which do not benefit modern, changeable economies.

The linkage between growth and immigration remains strong. And yes, public services need to keep pace to adapt to larger numbers of people using them or in different concentrations to previously. But western countries with low immigration are very often those lacking in verve and attractiveness.

It is one thing to promise better education and skills for the UK-born workforce and more business investment — the Chancellor’s repeat prescription — but these outcomes are not quick or cheap to deliver. The future of jobs in powerhouses like London will be a mixture adapting to technological changes and the need to sustain healthy flows of human capital.

It has become something of an omerta for the political class, but one of the things London has on its side is its resilience to economic setbacks and the fact that a lot of motivated people born a very long way from the sound of Bow Bells want to be here. It has become something of a curse for the political class to say so, but it is more of an asset than a headache.

Even counting the statistics which have troubled the alarmists as a one-off peak, immigration will need to remain at a sturdy level to boost the sagging fortunes of the UK the Bank’s governor has just highlighted. That is fine. It is just getting harder to find a politician with the nerve to say so.

Anne McElvoy is head of podcasting at Politico Europe