Nobody watching the news last night (2 Sept 2015) and seeing the conjunction of a drowned Syrian toddler being carried tenderly from the sea and Mr Cameron robustly holding the line on migration can have failed to see that Britain’s current policy on migration has run out of road.
This repudiation of refugees is shameful. It leaves us looking callous and self-interested. It is also utterly self-defeating in that we are poisoning the well of cooperation amongst key European countries on which are depending for the renegotiation of our relations with the EU.
The Prime Minister’s key problem is that in 2009 he rashly committed himself to a target for net migration, Wise heads noted at the time that this was a profoundly mistaken promise because it is a number over which the UK government has incomplete influence, was at odds with other policy priorities, and would inevitably box him in once he was elected.
Once in government, Cameron duly found that:
- We cannot prevent inward migration of other EU citizens without leaving the EU.
- Net migration includes the return of British citizens living abroad, whom we presumably have no intention of repudiating.
- It encompasses overseas students, whom BIS is eager to encourage to come and study here, not least because they contribute so much to the funding of our universities; and
- It includes skilled workers necessary to our future economic performance.
- Finally, net migration includes refugees, leaving us in the unenviable position of doing as little as possible to help those fleeing Syria (a country, let us not forget, that we and the Americans helped destabilise via the inadequate post-conflict planning of the Iraq War).
Two tried and tested political history lessons come to mind:
- Don’t commit the classic political mistake of setting a target for a measure over which you have no control.
- When in a hole stop digging.
The Prime Minister, and the Conservative Party, urgently need to come to terms with the present refugee crisis (and here the postwar resettlement in the UK of people from the Continent displaced by war and the influx of 90,000 other European nationals under the European Voluntary Worker programmes of the late-1940s might provide useful models).
More generally, Mr Cameron needs to change the national conversation on migration if he is to break out of the box in which he has imprisoned himself. Sometimes leaders really do have to lead, not follow.