Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has issued a paper regarding immigration into Britain, particularly in relation to the UK’s membership of the European Union. It is authored by Harvey Redgrave, a very good policy man who used to work in Ed Miliband’s office during the coalition years. It is not without merit in some ways. However, I think it was an opportunity wasted, particularly as Blair could have said things that no one else could and taken this debate in a different direction than where it is currently headed.
Whichever way you slice it, “EU immigration: examining the evidence and policy choices” is calling for greater curbs on immigration from the EU from here on in. This is heavily caveated in the report – for instance, it mentions several times that the overall effect of EU migration into the UK has been economically beneficial – yet this is the unavoidable conclusion. The idea is that we should make it harder for EU nationals who do not have a job offer to come and live in the country, basically. The report lays out different possibilities regarding freedom of movement going forward, but this is the one that is going to jump out at you as being a change in direction from where New Labour stood on immigration.
The report is a decent one – but I wish Tony Blair could have said something slightly different. Something along these lines:
“Back in 2004 when I was prime minister, we made the decision to remove any waiting period in terms of allowing people from the newly joined EU countries in eastern Europe – Poland, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia – the right to live and work in the United Kingdom. The EU would have allowed us to stave this off until 2011, seven more years, but we chose not to do that. We, the British government of the time, chose to allow as many people from these countries into Britain as wanted to come. We thought that the immigration into this country from Eastern Europe would be in the tens of thousands, at the most. Instead, over a million people from those 2004 accession countries moved to the UK. As the only other countries to allow the same rights back in 2004 were Sweden and Ireland, it makes sense in retrospect. We got it wrong and for this I am sorry. Not because EU migration has been a total disaster over the last decade and a half by any means – it has been a net benefit, economically. Yet I recognise that culturally it changed this country and people felt it was all happening too quickly. It allowed the debate to shift against immigration and may have helped along the vote to leave the EU last year.
“But I stress, this rapid immigration was not the fault of the EU per se, but the mistake of lifting the controls when we did. So with that in mind, look at where we are in 2017: the likelihood of expansion of the EU in the next decade is almost nil. Remaining in the Single Market means that freedom of movement continues, but outside of the EU there are many levers the government could pull, including the brake on EU immigration David Cameron tried to negotiate pre-referendum. We mustn’t let a mistake made by a government thirteen years ago turn Britain into a closed country, fearful of the outside world, our economy made weaker by such phobias.”
Something like that, I would have liked. Because Blair, as the PM of the time, can say that in a way that no one else ever could. I’ll admit, this would have been hard for anyone to do: own up to something like that. But I think it could have changed the debate on immigration, at least for a little while – made people think about things in a little more depth. No politician has ever really talked about the 2004 decision and its effect on the immigration debate – Tony Blair is exactly the guy who could. There’s still a chance for him to do it.