The immigration lie of the moment is the lie that any of the major parties would do anything significant about it. It is true that the parties in favour of continued EU membership are limited in the extent to which they can promise to reduce EU immigration even if they wish to – the concept of free movement of people within the EU is one which is not realistically going to be capable of renegotiation (although there does seem to be some scope to distinguish the freedom to move from the right to claim welfare benefits). The real lie is the one being peddled by the most significant anti-EU party, UKIP.
It is true that were the UK to leave the EU, it would be able to restrict immigration from EU countries just as it is currently free to do so in respect of non-EU immigration. The lie here is more subtle. I will credit UKIP’s leadership with being sincere in not wanting it to be a racist or xenophobic party. However, its rhetoric about regaining control over immigration raises the hopes of those who would not just want to control future immigration, but also to “do something” about immigration up to the point at which this future control was obtained. Some people who are concerned about immigration are genuinely focusing on preventing future immigration but many, perhaps most, of those who consider it an issue do so because they have serious problems about the immigration which has already occurred.
UKIP’s election broadcast for the European Parliament elections included a contribution from builder (and UKIP council candidate), Andre Lampitt, who has since, embarrassingly, been found to harbour some unavoidably racist and unpleasant views. However, even had this not been true (and something for which Nigel Farage candidly admitted, the party deserved a kicking), what he said in the broadcast is telling in itself. He bemoans the Eastern European and other immigrant tradesmen who had already come and made it difficult for him to earn a living. People who sympathise with that view aren’t just saying “we don’t want any more”, they are saying that they don’t like what we already have.
UKIP, in pushing this is lying. Either it is lying to the people who are sympathetic to what Lampitt said in the broadcast because they have no intention of doing anything about those who will have lawfully come to Britain prior to them taking control of immigration. Or it is lying to those it is trying to persuade that it is a non-racist party who have no interest in attempting to “encourage” the repatriation of lawful immigrants. This latter line is the way in which it can distance itself from the BNP’s approach to immigration. But, it, and its supporters need to work out where they really stand on the issue. If they don’t want to “do something” about the immigration which has already occurred they need to stop using that immigration as part of the message for why something needs to be done about future immigration. That case can be made independently, but not credibly by a populist party reliant on the support of those who would happily see immigrants from the 2004 Accession States sent packing and who would pressure UKIP to do so were they to achieve power with their support. Or, they could be honest and say that yes, Farage was disturbed by the lack of English voices on his commuter train and was going to do something to remove the foreigners already in our midst.
Somehow, I can’t see either honest course of action being taken. UKIP won’t want to lose a lot of its popular support by clarifying that those who are already here can stay and there’s nothing wrong with them being here. It won’t want to lose a lot of its support by saying they agree with the BNP that many legal immigrants should “go home”. Just as Farage’s defence of employing his German wife hasn’t been translated into a policy of supporting the right of foreign spouses to enter the country and work here. He’s said she’s the only one who could be his PA, but would he have considered it acceptable for the UK to bar his wife from entering the country were she not to have had those unique skills? UKIP might not be racist, but it has no problem with courting the support of racists.