George Hepburn: Is immigration row sending the PM towards an EU exit strategy?

Journal columnist George Hepburn says that if the PM ends up campaigning for us to leave the EU then the far right will have won

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

David Cameron is considering applying the ‘emergency brake’ on immigration. At first, I thought he must have been on a driver awareness course. Had he, like me, been caught speeding?

The numbers of deaths through road traffic accidents continues to fall – from 10 a day in 2003 to under 5 a day last year. The fall is attributed to safer design of cars, better road infrastructure and improved motoring by you and me.

More safety conscious driving stems in part from courses offered as an alternative to points on the licence for drivers caught just over the speed limit. My transgression was to be snapped at 36mph in a 30 mile zone early one Sunday morning.

Although most of us attended under duress, the speed awareness course was taught in such a clever and good humoured way that we came away resolving to observe the speed limits in future. Education is a marvellous thing.

I learned that the chance of killing a pedestrian is four times higher driving at 40 mph than at 30mph and that stopping distances greatly increase over 70mph. In other words, there is some science behind setting the limits at their current level.

I realised that I reach my destination only a few minutes later by observing the speed limits and can relax and enjoy the journey. I especially liked the way that the trainers prefaced their statements with the phrase “Would you agree that….” which invited my consent without laying down the law.

Would this kind of didactic approach work on the more contentious issue of immigration as well? Here is what an immigration awareness trainer might ask the students:

Would you agree that young people should have the chance to work abroad and that others should similarly have the chance to do so here? Sounds a good idea to me.

Would you agree that immigrants are hard workers? My experience of being served coffee by people born on other shores is generally positive. They smile engagingly.

Would you agree that immigrants plug gaps in the labour market? – Yes. Care homes depend on overseas staff to look after our elderly people.

Would you agree that immigrants make a net contribution to the economy? Yes. I heard that they pay about more 1/3 in taxes than they cost in public services and benefits.

Would you agree that we should be continue to be a tolerant country that gives shelter to people who would be tortured or killed in their own country? I hope so.

Would you agree that the United Kingdom is enriched by the culture and outlook of the different nationalities? Well, I always enjoy a meal in an Indian restaurant.

It is surprising how much we can agree about on the subject of immigration. Despite this, British perceptions remain far more negative than our daily experience. 59% of the population believe there are too many immigrants compared to only 27% in Germany or The Netherlands which actually have a higher level of foreign born immigrants.

We overlook facts that might challenge our perceptions. Most people think 3 in 10 of UK population are first generation immigrants whereas the actual figure is about 1 in 10. A lot of people think that immigrants are mainly asylum seekers where the largest group are students paying their way in our universities. A few fear they are all jihadists.

Driver awareness courses are only offered to people who have marginally broken the speed limit in the hope that a four hour course will influence their future behaviour. So far, I am driving more slowly, often to the irritation of the car behind me.

Maniacs who drive recklessly fast lose their licence and in extreme cases are locked away. Some of those vehemently opposed to immigration are racists who should also be denied a public platform.

Of course, we need to plan how better to assimilate newcomers to this country. There are some local problems to be overcome. We must be clear about the limits of our tolerance.

We must contain the comparatively small group of potential terrorists. We may even need to debate whether there comes a point at which the country is “full”.

But most of us could be persuaded about the overall benefits of immigration if the case is put in the proper way. Would some good old fashioned facts and figures defuse the rhetoric increasingly put about by politicians of all persuasions? 70% of UKIP supporters say immigration is the biggest issue to be tackled but there is no rational reason why it should dominate political debate in the run up to the election.

It has long been a blue touch paper. Reading a new biography of Roy Jenkins this week, I recalled that Edward Heath’s government in the seventies introduced measures to restrict immigrants from the new commonwealth in an attempt to counter support for Enoch Powell and the far right.

There is not much evidence that we have learned our lessons. Appeasing the ‘send them home’ brigade does not work. It is also disingenuous of credible politicians who should know better than to curry favour.

It now looks as if the free movement of labour may become the breaking point in renegotiating our membership of the European Union. If David Cameron throws in the towel on this issue and campaigns for leaving the European Union in the promised referendum, the far right will have won an even greater victory.

We need to move up a gear and see ourselves as Europeans – as Heath and Jenkins argued so passionately forty years ago – which means accepting the interchange of workers across Europe as part of a stronger economy and a more diverse culture. We need to debate the terms of our membership but should not be obsessed the single issue of immigration.

David Cameron must know that a sensible driver does not apply an emergency hand brake. Does he need to go on a speed awareness course or is he hurtling regardless towards the exit?

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