December 20, 2022 - 3:36pm

The British public is overwhelmingly in favour of generously funded public services, as well as being overwhelmingly in favour of low rates of immigration. The consensus in Westminster is that these two desires are incompatible. We have a rapidly ageing population who expect ever greater spending on pensions and healthcare, but who are reluctant or unable to continue working into their 70s and 80s, and we have also had half a century of low native birth rates. The result is a disastrously unsustainable rise in the old age dependency ratio — that is, the number of individuals aged 65 and over per 100 people of working age. In 1950, that figure was 17.9. By 2075, it is projected to be 53. 

Importing working age people from overseas is assumed to be easier than boosting native birth rates — and, in the short term, that’s probably correct, since liberalising immigration policy is quick and simple, whereas implementing pro-natalist policy is generally slow and complex. But the problem for the Government is that voters don’t like mass migration, given the damage it does to social trust. Polling from 4th December finds that 84% of Conservative voters and 63% of all respondents consider current levels of immigration to be “too high”.

The solution? Window dressing. That’s the take-home message from a new report published this week by the Social Market Foundation think tank, which concludes that high levels of migration are here to stay. Last year’s record-breaking figure of 1.1 million is likely to be the new normal, so this report argues, given the profound demographic problems we face. And the proposed ‘Routes to Resolution’ (the report’s title) are almost entirely rhetorical: speak less of “brain drain” than of “brain gain”, for instance, and have “conversations” with reluctant voters, rather than dismiss them as bigots (a lesson Gordon Brown learned to his cost). 

This is a rhetorical game that the Conservative Party has been playing for a long time: combine tough talk with hyper-liberal policy and hope that voters don’t notice. Even the supposedly hardline proposal to remove failed asylum seekers to Rwanda — a policy this week deemed legal by the High Court — would only reduce immigration numbers by a tiny fraction, giving the impression to voters that the Government is taking strong action, without actually obliging it to do so at scale.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s statements on immigration have been harsh enough to see her compared this week with Nigel Farage by her former colleague Nimco Ali, the government’s outgoing adviser on tackling violence against women. And the approach to immigration policy taken by Braverman’s predecessor, Priti Patel, has been condemned by (among many others) Amnesty International as expressive of “xenophobia”. The perverse reality of the situation, though, is that both of these home secretaries have overseen historically unprecedented levels of immigration. 

Immigration is one area of policy where it is just about possible to play such games, as the SMF report correctly points out. Immigration is a cumulative process, meaning that there is a time lag between the implementation of new policies and their effects becoming evident. Further, the numbers involved are often hard for the public to discern, particularly in recent years as data has been, potentially deliberately, withheld. As the SMF report details:

The decision by the UK Office for National Statistics to abandon its quarterly reporting of regular migration numbers based on the International Passenger Survey (IPS) is of huge and under-appreciated importance for UK immigration politics. Its absence has helped take debates about regular migration numbers out of media reporting and so political discourse. 
- Social Market Foundation

Supporters of liberal immigration policy are listening only to what the Government is saying, while failing to look at what they are actually doing.

Louise Perry is a freelance writer and campaigner against sexual violence.