No government statistic showing an increase of 24% in a single year can be ignored. This will certainly not be the fate of the news from the Office for National Statistics on Thursday that net migration to the United Kingdom has risen from 488,000 in 2021 to 606,000 in 2022. The new figure is nearly double the 2018 level, which itself led the Conservative party to pledge, in its 2019 general election manifesto, that net migration would be reduced during the current parliament.
As a broken pledge and a policy failure this takes some beating. But it is par for the course. The 2019 pledge is one of a series of unrealisable and often cruelly deceitful migration promises made by the Conservatives in the past 20 years. Rishi Sunak’s focus on the Channel small boats and Thursday’s repeated pledge to bring the numbers down shows how little has changed.
These pledges are aimed at and reflect the Tory party more than the country. They pander to the mistaken view that migration to Britain is uniquely high. All recycle the mischievous simplicity that migration can be purged from an interconnected world. All are fired by the misplaced belief that migration is invariably opposed by the public in the way some newspapers and politicians pretend.
In fact, as the 2022 figures show, none of this is true. For one thing, the new total reflects very specific factors. These include an estimated 114,000 arrivals in the UK under the Ukraine sponsorship and family visa schemes, for which public support is generous and high. They also include 52,000 long-term arrivals from Hong Kong of people with British nationals overseas status, whose presence is similarly accepted by most people in the UK.
It would be wrong, though, to depict the 2022 figure as an outlier. Migration is a dynamic and enduring reality of the modern world. It is likely to remain high, not to decline significantly. There are multiple push causes for this, including poverty and the climate crisis, that are likely to be recurrent. There are also multiple pull factors, including the ageing populations of many European nations, including Britain, and the consequent demand for labour across a range of economic sectors. These are not going to disappear either.
The pragmatism of the public mood is ahead of Conservative MPs on this issue. The majority has increasingly accepted and welcomed these realities, provided the immigration system is felt, against considerable evidence, to be competent. In an under-appreciated shift, the public now says, by a majority, that migration levels should stay the same or increase. This is largely because so many of those who migrate here legally for work come to do jobs of which the public strongly approves. Nurses, doctors, care workers, computer programmers, business people, scientists and accountants made up the bulk of those to whom visas were awarded last year. But people now also favour migration for fruit and vegetable picking, construction and of university students. The public gets it in ways the government doesn’t.
None of this means that there is no need to debate immigration policy. While parts of the Tory party embrace the aggressive racial divisiveness of the Trump era in the United States, there are signs that most British people want a more decent approach. The immigration debate needs to be fact-based, rational and sensitive. Pretending that the issue will fade away, though, is dangerous. It won’t and it shouldn’t.