Alex Massie: Reality of populism on immigration

David Cameron has often "tried to have it both ways". Picture: John Devlin
David Cameron has often "tried to have it both ways". Picture: John Devlin
Have your say

DAVID Cameron’s latest pledge on numbers of incomers is both futile and self-destructive, warns Alex Massie.

Never, ever, make promises you cannot keep. This elementary principle – one familiar to all parents, for instance – is so simple it remains a matter of wonder that politicians so frequently forget it. David Cameron’s pledge to reduce “net migration” to below 100,000 people a year is an excellent example of how cheap promises made in opposition can become exceedingly expensive mistakes in government.

Mr Cameron’s promise was doubly daft. In the first place, it’s not the kind of promise – or the kind of politics – that really animates the Prime Minister. It was a bone thrown to his party to buy some time and space during the last immigration-frenzy. It was cheap and it was nasty, but it did a job for a while at least. But promises are easy in Opposition; governing, by contrast, is hard.

The Prime Minister made another speech on immigration yesterday.

This was perverse, chiefly because there was no way Mr Cameron’s remarks could possibly placate or satisfy his audience. It is an audience that does not want to be satisfied. An audience that prefers frothing, eye-popping, vein-bulging anger to the messy realities and compromises of real life and real government.


Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning

• You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google +

As so often, Mr Cameron tries to have it both ways. He (rightly) praised “modern Britain” apparently forgetting it is precisely “modern Britain” that many of his fiercest critics hate most. The Prime Minister was equally right to resist the “snake oil of simple solutions” but one couldn’t help wondering if perhaps he might have thought about that before he made his now infamous – and impossible – pledge on immigration.

Because if it is a mistake to make promises you cannot keep it is even dafter to make pledges you cannot even hope to enforce. Even if he wanted to, Mr Cameron could not control the number of people entering this country. The delivery of his promise was never in his gift, an awkward but unavoidable fact that compounds his folly. Sure, the government can – and has – made it harder for immigrants to land on these shores from Africa and Asia but it can do nothing, as it has discovered, about immigrants arriving from within the European Union.

Indeed, far from being “swamped” by immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, Britain’s new wave of immigration comes from Old Europe, not the newly-joined eastern territories. Immigration from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France has risen sharply, not least as a consequence of the continuing privations caused by the eurozone’s troubles. Britain, by contrast, seems a magnet of opportunity. This is something to celebrate, not a cause for woe and complaint.

Of course new arrivals put some pressure on demand for local services. But, from the perspective of those local services, it makes precisely zero difference whether those new arrivals hail from Gdansk or Glasgow. The pressure is the same. What next? Quotas for internal migration too? All kinds of daft things seem possible.

That’s because, for a long time now, the Tory message on immigration has been as simple as it is obtuse: Ukip is right, don’t vote for the Tories. It is no way to sell a message, no way to run a government. That Labour mouth the same kind of nonsense does not let the Prime Minister off the hook. No wonder moderate, sensible, centrist voters have cause to despair: both main parties are busy scurrying around trying to curry favour with extremists who cannot be appeased. Not only that, they do not want to be satisfied. They enjoy the thought the country is going to the dogs. They have no desire to be disabused of their satisfying disgruntlement.

You’d think the experience of these foolish promises on immigration would have taught the Tories something. Apparently not, however. Even if Mr Cameron somehow wins a second-term – and any such victory will owe more to Ed Miliband’s failures than the Prime Minister’s strengths – the Prime Minister is setting himself up to fail again. His promise to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then put that renegotiation to the test in a subsequent referendum is another promise of failure. He cannot possibly succeed, not least on account of the fact that half his party actively wants him to fail.

Tory Eurosceptics have no interest in a successful renegotiation. They neither think such a thing possible or desirable. They want Britain out and it doesn’t matter how this might be achieved. Indeed, from their perspective there is no such thing as a successful renegotiation.

Mr Cameron does not want Britain to leave the EU – he appreciates the danger such a move could pose to Britain’s economy and place in the world – so it is all but impossible to imagine him leading a campaign for withdrawal. Which in turn means he will be forced to confront a large part of his own party. It is not difficult to see how this ends: badly.

Europe ruined Margaret Thatcher and helped ruin John Major too. Mr Cameron seems likely to be ruined by it as well. Such, it seems, is the fate of Tory prime ministers. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all is that prospective prime ministers should think before they speak and resist the cheap temptations of easy populism. Such promises might buy some time – and some happy headlines – in Opposition but they invariably cause more trouble in the end than they are worth.


• Download your free 30-day trial for our iPad, Android Android and Kindle apps

Keep up to date with all aspects of Scottish life with The Scotsman iPhone app, completely free to download and use