Mehdi Hasan on the Tories myths about immigration
The very first question of the first televised leader's debate in British political history was on the subject of immigration. Last April, in front of a live audience of 9.4 million viewers, toxicologist Gerard Oliver asked Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg to outline the "key elements for a fair, workable immigration policy".
So I tire of the lazy argument, advanced by Tory and Labour politicians alike, that "we don't talk about immigration". Announcing his candidacy for the Labour leadership last May, Andy Burnham claimed: "There's still an ambivalence among some in Labour about discussing immigration." Rival candidate Ed Balls said he warned Gordon Brown not to "brush it under the carpet". A year on, "Blue Labour" thinkers are pushing a similar line of thought.
David Cameron has been quick to pounce. "[T]here were Labour ministers who closed down discussion, giving the impression that concerns about immigration were somehow racist," he said this week, adding: "[I]t is untruthful and unfair not to speak about it."
This is nonsense. There is no conspiracy of silence on immigration. We talk of little else. Only two months ago, in Munich, the prime minister demanded that immigrants "speak the language of their new home". On Thursday, he repeated the same message: "We're making sure that anyone studying a degree-level course has a proper grasp of the English language."
In fact, if it were true that we never talk about immigration, why am I constantly bombarded by BBC producers asking me to discuss the subject on their various outlets? Why, indeed, am I writing this piece for the Guardian?
Don't get me wrong. I want to talk about immigration; I like talking about it. As the son of (Indian) immigrants and the husband of an (American) immigrant, there's nothing else I'd rather do.
So here we go. Can we talk about immigration and its economic impact? A government study in 2007 estimated that migrants contributed about £6bn to output growth the previous year. That's equivalent to a 1.5% cut in the basic rate of income tax. Can we talk about this?
Can we talk about how immigrants, contrary to myth and legend, boost wages in the UK? A report for the Low Pay Commission found that between 1997 and 2005, immigration to the UK made a positive contribution to the average wage-increase experienced by non-immigrant workers. In the words of the report's author, Professor Christian Dustmann of UCL's Department of Economics: "Economic theory shows us that immigration can provide a net boost to wages." Is this worth a discussion?
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