Has there ever been a more successful melting pot than the UK? Almost by accident, we seem to have welcomed 1.2 million immigrants last year, with Brexit leading to a different mix. Poles, Czechs and Bulgarians used to dominate – now it’s more Indians, Filipinos and Nigerians. Most walk straight into jobs where grateful employers are crying out for staff. They tend to earn more than the average, so become net contributors to the exchequer. This is what to remember in the general debate about immigration: just how many political problems it solves.
The headline number, 606,000 more people arriving than departing last year, is hugely controversial. It’s six times David Cameron’s old target. It raises embarrassing questions about what “taking back control” meant, or why the Tories have doubled the net migration that they promised to cut. But without these industrious newcomers, the Tories would be forced to confront deep social and economic issues like mass welfare dysfunction, the skills gap, the mental health crisis. No politician is very keen to do that.
Brexit has given Sunak complete control over the borders, to numbers as low as he likes. But he won’t use these powers, because the newcomers offer such help in politically sensitive areas. That’s why, in the Cabinet, there is only one voice regularly calling for lower numbers: that of Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary. Everyone else is shocked – shocked! – to see so many come to fill these vacancies.
When Sajid Javid was home secretary, he quickly moved to relax immigration rules for NHS recruits. There certainly was and remains an acute problem: big staff shortages and lack of homegrown medics. This is due to a shocking shortage of places in British medical schools, whereby hundreds of straight-A students are rejected every year. But fixing this would cost about £1 billion a year, money ministers would rather not spend. Importing Filipinos is far cheaper. Health visas are now issued at the rate of almost 600 a day.
Then, the students. University fees have barely risen since being capped at £9,000 a year in 2010, a sum now decimated by inflation. So: what to do? Increase the cap and charge Brits £12,000? Or fill campuses with Americans and Nigerians who happily pay £35,000, thereby subsidising the locals? Again, politically, it’s a no-brainer. Mass immigration is a tool to keep British fees low – it’s just that no one likes to admit it…