Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Immigration tango

5 April 2004

The government's immigration policy is collapsing because it is trying to do one thing while saying another.

The fashionable political nostrum of "what works" and the more traditional, civil service style approach of "by the book" sit decidedly ill with one another. They are two different flavours for deciding policy and they approach their business from opposite ends of the methodological spectrum.

"By the book" emphasises precedent and procedure. You look at how something is normally done, or how it was done last time, or - failing a close precedent - how something similar has been done in the past. This approach minimises risk and builds on experience, but it is closed to innovation and permits the errors of the past to be replicated.

"What works" eschews precedent in favour of innovation and success. It looks for a positive result by searching beyond received wisdom. Its weakness lies in its lack of rootedness. By avoiding dogma it is in danger of losing touch with principle, so that the thing that works is not always harmonious with the underlying pattern.

The tension that stretches between these approaches is strikingly evident in the immigration rumpus that claimed a government scalp last week. At its centre was a spat between officials who care how things are done and a government that wants to (appear to) get things done.

As always with policy, it is necessary to define the problem, and with immigration this can be done in several ways. According the The Guardian, it is "the single most volatile issue in British electoral politics today, the one that causes most concern to most people and the one that swings most votes." From a democratic point of view, therefore, the problem is how to satisfy those concerns. This requires either establishing or making assumptions about what the concerns are.

Those who approach this matter "by the book" assume that the way to satisfy the public is to ensure that the procedures are properly applied. What set the hare going that led to the resignation of Beverley Hughes was the assertion from an official that this was not happening. Some bright spark of a manager in an office in Sheffield (an official clearly lacking the mindset befitting to his office) decided that, since immigration applications were going to be approved anyway, they might as well be approved without the formal, time consuming but ultimately pointless checks that the procedure called for. It appears they had forgotten that the very ponderousness of the process is what achieves, to the official mind, the objective of satisfying public scepticism.

If this sounds like a touch of "what works" creeping in, it illustrates precisely the weakness of that approach. What works in immigration is to admit people with a skill and willingness to work and let them get on with it. The idea that people fight (and often buy) their way into this country for the privilege of sitting around on benefits is delusory. For a start, the benefits are not so great; but the main point is that people come here to improve their lot and expect to work to achieve it. That is good for the economy: an input, not a cost. Precisely the sort of outcome that "what works" is looking for, one would think.

But the problem with "what works" is that it begs the question: works for whom? If the criterion is economic there is reason to favour the (mostly illegal) immigrants who have struggled hardest to get here. For every few dozens of people living parlously in their own country there is only one who will up and off, and that is the one that you want for their determination and entrepreneurship.

It is an argument that ought to appeal to free market conservatives but for some reason it does not. There are deeper forces at play: forces that appeal not so much to visceral feelings of identity as of fairness. People object to immigration where there is a suspicion that the immigrants will take something to which they are not entitled: a job, for example, that a Briton could do; or social security benefits that Britons are paying for. Because of this, the idea of selecting immigrants from an orderly queue at the door is politically attractive.

"What works", therefore, is skewed into what works for the electorate, and that means putting appearance first. The attack on the government last week emphasised the allegation that they were not in control of immigration, as if "control" was a way of saying "not letting them in". But, of course, "control" could equally well mean "letting them in in spades" if that were the policy. What control really means is having a structure that can make your chosen policy work.

According to that same leading article in The Guardian, the government, "conditioned by its fears, talks tough, while acting as decently as it can" in relation to immigration. That means paying lip-service to perceived public opinion while acting in another way, which is a pretty good definition of "what works" under this Labour government. The problem with this is that, however enlightened the tacit policy may be, the necessity of pretending it is other than it is means that the "book" of precedent and procedure never gets re-written. So the important question for immigration remains not "is it good for Britain?" but "is it under control?"

The message for the government is that, when "what works" challenges the entrenched wisdom, that challenge has to be explicit rather than tacit and seek to change that wisdom in a principled way. Otherwise the policy will never be judged on its own terms. David Blunkett's Home Office, particularly sensitive to the Daily Mail view of the world, is especially guilty of the sort of double vision that has been Beverley Hughes's undoing. Trying to run a pragmatic, humane and economically advantageous immigration policy and run with the Mail at the same time is a recipe for falling over, just as trying to cut prisoner numbers while talking tough on sentencing is a recipe for bulging prisons. If what works really works, lets hear about it. If not, better stick to the tried and tested.


 ©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004