Almost exactly 10 years ago, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, appeared on the Andrew Marr Show to make a pledge that would shape British politics for the next decade. Under a Conservative government, the leader of the opposition promised, “net migration” would be reduced to the “tens of thousands”. Like much of Cameron’s rhetoric, it sounded like a clever technocratic fix to a seemingly intractable problem: Britain’s economy required immigration, but it was the source of media hostility and public anxiety that had bedevilled the incumbent Labour government.
With a measurable target – “net migration” is simply the difference between the number of people arriving in a country and the number of people leaving – Cameron’s pledge suggested that immigration could be sensibly managed, and a political timebomb defused. Yet, like many of his other defining projects, the policy was an abject failure – both on its own terms, and in the way it helped poison British politics in the years that followed.
From the beginning, it should have been clear that the promise was foolish. As early as June 2011, just over a year after the Conservatives took office, Oxford University’s impartial Migration Observatory argued that the government’s own figures showed that the target was highly unlikely to be met.
This was followed by harsh new policies designed to bring down the numbers: a cap on skilled labour migration from outside the European Union; a punishing new minimum income threshold for people with spouses from overseas; crackdowns on “bogus” colleges and “foreign criminals” – and, most notoriously in retrospect, the launch of the “hostile environment” policy, aimed at ramping up deportations and pressuring unwanted migrants to leave voluntarily.
But the net migration figures did not fall to anywhere near the target level. Nor did media hostility diminish. Instead, towards the end of 2013, the press whipped up a new moral panic about the potential arrival of immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania – EU member states that were due to fully enter agreements on freedom of movement the following year. Immigration remained a major issue going into the 2015 general election, with both main parties competing to sound toughest. A year later, public perception that immigration was out of control was successfully mobilised by leave campaigners, playing a major role in delivering them victory in the Brexit referendum .
In Britain, like in other western European countries, there is a long history of governments encouraging immigration to meet the demands of their economies, while at the same time passing restrictive measures that aim to reassure settled majority populations. Many of the “hostile environment” measures, for instance, intensified processes set in motion by New Labour. But Cameron’s approach was different, and riskier. The net migration target “created, for the first time in the UK, the concept that there was a ‘right amount’ of migration to and from the country”, as the Migration Observatory’s Rob McNeil wrote in a recent analysis. It reframed migration control as “a technocratic process of balancing the books” – an approach with obvious appeal to a government whose flagship austerity policies framed a huge transfer of wealth from the public sector into the pockets of the rich as a similarly impartial accounting procedure.
Although this approach promised an efficient solution that would dispel racism and hostility, the results were anything but. One of the myths about racism in Britain is that it’s primarily a question of individual attitudes, arising primarily from ignorance and bigotry. What this obscures is how state policies, designed and carried out by educated people who regard themselves as intelligent and civilised, can entrench discrimination and feed the very attitudes they seek to counteract. Not only was the net migration target a red rag to the rightwing press, but the way the government sought to achieve it was destructive in its own right.
A minor but revealing episode came in 2013, when the Home Office trialled the use of advertising vans telling migrants without permission to be in the UK to “Go home”, driving them around multi-ethnic London neighbourhoods. This epitomised the nasty undercurrent to the talk of targets: a bullying official culture that showed little regard for the way in which it intimidated and stigmatised migrant and ethnic minority communities in pursuit of its goals. As the lives ruined by the Windrush scandal showed, this was about far more than hurt feelings.
The net migration target remained a feature of Conservative manifesto promises in 2015 and 2017: it was no surprise that Theresa May, architect of the hostile environment as home secretary, kept the pledge as party leader. But last month’s general election brought an end to the era of the net migration target: for the first time in a decade, it was absent from the Conservative party manifesto. Reducing immigration remains a priority, with a manifesto promise that “overall numbers will come down”, but the target has been replaced by a proposed “Australian-style points-based system”. This is an ambiguous phrase that functions both as a nod to voters worried about ethnic diversity – for some, “Australia” is a euphemism for a whites-first immigration policy – and a signal of a more business-oriented policy.
Since the 2016 referendum, public attitudes to immigration seem to have softened: voters are less likely to name it as their primary concern, or to see it as a wholly negative phenomenon, although they tend to want immigration reduced overall. This could be an opportunity for politicians to make the case for a more liberal approach to immigration. It remains to be seen to what extent Labour will do so, as the party enters a period of introspection after its historic election defeat: in opposition it has been inconsistent, veering between trying to out-tough the Tories in the era of Ed Miliband, and rhetorical support for migrants’ rights under Jeremy Corbyn that wasn’t always backed up by policy.
The fundamental problem with the net migration target was not whether it was achievable, but that it treated the movement of human beings as a material resource, a way of thinking that is replicated so often in wider political and media culture. It is the kind of view from on high that has little regard for the damage caused to people’s lives when they fail to fit into the categories set for them. This damage includes people made destitute, separated from their loved ones, smeared as terrorists or frauds, deported to countries they have barely been to, and in some cases, perhaps, being hounded into early deaths.
This appalling situation went unnoticed for far too long, partly because those who felt the worst of it were the people deemed not to matter by our political and media elites. The damage has only become visible in public thanks to dogged reporting by investigative journalists, or the work of campaign groups such as Against Borders for Children and Docs not Cops, which have made it impossible to ignore. Shortly, millions of EU citizens resident in Britain will have some of their existing rights removed – as will millions of UK citizens, who collectively voted to give up those rights in 2016 – and a question mark hangs over what will replace them. As new policies begin to work their effects, we need a media that informs us about what’s happening to those around us, and to speak up for one another when people are being hurt. Politicians may be tempted to ignore the human cost of their grand schemes, but that’s no way for the rest of us to live.
• Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe
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