When UK civil servants drew up plans for this week’s summit of Commonwealth leaders in London and Windsor, their themes included “a fairer future, promoting the principles enshrined in the Commonwealth charter of democracy, good governance, human rights and the rule of law”. Oh dear.
What was supposed to the biggest and best international conference held in Britain turned into a presentational disaster. Worse still, one created by Theresa May.
The heart-rending stories of people in the Windrush generation invited to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s, who have lost jobs and NHS treatment and faced deportation, can be traced back to the “hostile environment” strategy May pursued as Home Secretary. True, it was aimed at illegal immigrants. But it created a presumption that people were here wrongly unless they could prove otherwise, so those with every right to stay were scandalously treated as illegals.
It is no use ministers blaming civil servants. As Margaret Thatcher said: “Advisers advise and ministers decide.” Lucy Moreton, general secretary of the ISU union representing immigration staff and a former chief immigration officer at Heathrow airport, said it was “deeply unfair” to blame officials acting on instructions from their political masters. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that officials’ discretion to take an “educated and sensible view” in individual cases was removed after May sacked Brodie Clark as head of the UK Border Force in 2011 for relaxing passport checks to ease airport queues. (Clark claimed he was made a scapegoat.)
May’s approach was also a result of the target to reduce net migration below 100,000 a year, a figure the Conservatives plucked out of thin air in 2010. It meant the Home Office scrabbled around for every device to chip away at the numbers – even though the Tories’ Liberal Democrat coalition partners warned them the target was unachievable. While removing illegals would not help meet the target, the climate meant those entitled to be in the UK were caught in the net because of the colour of their skin. I’m not saying it was deliberately racist. But it was an unintended consequence of May’s strategy. How ironic, coming from the politician who admitted in 2002 that the Tories were seen as “the nasty party”.
The Windrush scandal, which shames the UK, may yet have a silver lining. It could strengthen the hand of ministers, led by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, trying to steer the Tories towards a more liberal immigration policy. She is warming to the idea of issuing an annual report on migration, which has been proposed by the Home Affairs Select Committee as a way to build consensus, tackle myths and spell out the cost and benefits of immigration at local and national level.
Rudd will likely win her battle to remove overseas students from the migration figures; May is isolated in her own cabinet on that. The same is true of the discredited target, which should now be killed off once and for all.
Rudd wants business to continue to have access to EU migrants after Brexit, while Eurosceptic ministers will oppose preferential access for the EU. But even they are striking a more positive tone. Michael Gove declared that Britain now has “the most liberal attitude towards migration of any European country”. (I think he forgot Germany, which has accepted an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees to Britain’s 10,500.) Boris Johnson said that “one of the myths” of the referendum decision was that it was about slashing immigration. (I must have imagined those Leave campaign warnings about 5.2 million people arriving in the UK from Turkey and Balkan states when they joined the EU.)
While we should welcome a change of heart by the Tories on immigration, it is not coming for entirely altruistic reasons. It is dawning on them that they will struggle to win an election as their elderly supporters literally die out if they fail to appeal to a younger generation more relaxed about immigration.
Appropriately, such a warning has just been delivered by Tory peer Lord Cooper of Windrush – the Cotswolds river which provided the name for the Empire Windrush, the ship which brought the first group of Caribbean migrants to the UK 70 years ago. “Since the Brexit referendum the Conservative Party has too often looked at sounded like an English Nationalist movement,” he wrote in a report for the British Future think tank marking today’s 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech.
Cooper, who co-founded the pollster Populus and was David Cameron’s director of strategy in Downing Street, pointed out that the Tories lost ground among non-white voters last year for the second election running. The party holds only one seat with a BAME population of more than 30 per cent; by the next election, there will be more than 120 such constituencies. “Unless something changes, before long there just won’t be enough white voters for the Conservative Party to be able to win,” he said.
Of course, the Windrush scandal will only make perceptions of the Tories even worse. If they do not adopt a more sensible immigration policy, they will pay a very heavy price.