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Controlling Immigration; The Snake-Oil of Our Times

May 4, 2014

This piece first appeared in the New Statesman on 8/5/2013.

Today, I watched as a monarch, wearing a crown encrusted with more than 3,000 precious gems, announced to a group of lords and bishops what “her” government’s plans for the Parliamentary session were and granted them God’s blessing. Later, in the ironically named House of Commons, the Eton-educated, millionaire grandson of a baronet, a direct descendent of King William IV and fifth cousin of the aforementioned monarch, gave further details. If this is a democracy, it is cleverly disguised on days like these.


Some scroungers are domestic. Some are not.

Tightening control of immigration, as expected, occupied centre stage. Piecing together leaks, briefings and subsequent announcements, this appears to include restricting benefits and healthcare (presumably to address the relevant “tourisms”), access to driving licences, forcing landlords to check a tenant’s immigration status, ensuring surviving foreign spouses do not collect pension benefits to which equivalent British spouses would be entitled. In the analysis which followed, we were assured repeatedly that all this had nothing to do with the recent surge in Ukip’s popularity.

Do I have a problem with a bill designed to “ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not”? Absolutely not. Similarly, I would have no problem, in principle, with a Bill designed to ensure that the eastern grey kangaroo ought to be a protected species in Hampshire. Is there any actual evidence that either is a real problem which merits legislative priority? Absolutely not.

Evidence from the DWP on the relative burden imposed by EU migrants on welfare is unequivocal: of the 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age living here, about 5% claim an “out of work benefit” compared with 13% for Britons. And what about other services? Unsurprisingly, since the majority of migrants are young healthy adults, research shows that they impose a disproportionately small burden on health and education.

All the much ballyhooed “health tourism” costs the NHS between £7m (according to the Health Minister) and £20m (according to the Prime Minister). How much money would you need for the administration of a system in which every doctor and nurse, in every practice and hospital, would be made to check the nationality and immigration status of every potential patient?

All in all, a comprehensive study of the last wave of migration from countries which acceded in 2004 demonstrates conclusively that year after year they contributed to the public purse roughly 30% more than they cost. In short, they are a huge asset. How is it, then, that we (I am one such migrant, albeit from a different era) find ourselves in the eye of a political storm and the target of sustained attack?

It would be facile to say that the answer is Nigel Farage. He has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties. The British economy is in deep distress and crying like a baby, not conscious of or unable to express the source of its discomfort. The other leaders were standing over the cot arguing about whether it is hungry or thirsty or teething or has colic. Farage has stepped into the nursery picked it up and put a dummy in its mouth. The dummy will do nothing to address the underlying problem, but it is comforting.

Like a Snake Oil salesman, he has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. Unemployment? Lack of economic growth? Unfairness? Corruption? Arthritis? Unrequited love? Try some of this Bash-A-Foreigner ointment and everything will be dandy – or your money back.

The real problem arises when Cameron, who purports to be the village pharmacist, decides it is too difficult to disabuse people of this notion and easier to get into the Snake Oil racket. It legitimises the confidence trick and emboldens the charlatan. All Farage needs to do is make the – now legitimate – claim that he sells The Original Snake Oil. Avoid Imitations.

And the confidence trick is a rather gigantic one. The OECD says income inequality is growing in this country faster than any other rich nation in more than 40 years. The richest 300 people in the world possess more wealth than than the poorest three billion – the equivalent of the populations of the UK, the US, India, Brazil and China combined. The annual income of the 100 richest people could end global poverty four times over. Stocks in the UK and the US hit pre-crisis peaks, but nothing is “trickling down” and absolutely no action has been taken to avert another shock which will kick us like a FTSE in the Nasdaqs.

At a time like this, when we all sharpen our elbows and worry increasingly about securing a more equitable slice of the pie, a job which pays a living wage, care when we are old or sick or both, a safety net of kindness, an education and a future for our children, the idea that the people standing in our way are fictional Romanians and foreign widows is not only daft, but immensely dangerous. Roll up, roll up.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2014 1:39 pm

    Reblogged this on sdbast.

  2. May 4, 2014 3:05 pm

    I think your piece would perhaps be very effective in terms of promoting the benefits of immigration in past eras, but it doesn’t really address the concerns of many today, and many of the concerned are immigrants or childen of immigrants who have no incination whatsoever to bash foreigners! The economic benefits are of limited consolation if London and other areas are getting increasingly overpopulated. Overcrowded public transport, a lack of school places, unaffordable housing, etc – don’t these matter? Is it OK to cover parts of the Green Belt with new towns? And what about the countries with falling populations that are unhappy about losing many of the young, energetic people that contribute what we feel we need? Are we so obsessed with our own prosperity that we don’t care less about the countries that can’t afford to lose some of their most skilled people?

    • May 6, 2014 1:05 pm


      I appreciate where you’re coming from. However, being a second or third generation immigrant does not immunise one from “pull up the ladder” syndrome. I think to say that “children of immigrants” have no inclination to bash foreigners is to ignore much of history.

      Finally, there is ongoing hand-wringing about our “ageing population” and “the pensions’ black hole”. In that context, one really has very limited choices. Either we all start having a LOT more babies or we import young, healthy migrant workers. The point is that their contribution is economically positive. Housing, transport, school places – these things are not inelastic. They can all increase or decrease. To say that without a slice of the population which makes a positive economic contribution, these things would all be more plentiful is a contradiction. All these things will become more scarce. Yes, there will be less people to consume them, but also less people to fund them. And since migrants contribute more than they use, the services you name would contract rather than expand.

  3. May 4, 2014 3:11 pm

    I’ve only just stumbled upon this blog, but very much enjoy your style. I am subsequently following your blog and look forward to both exploring the archived posts and reading your latest thoughts.

  4. rsoap permalink
    May 4, 2014 4:13 pm

    Tragic that this piece is necessary. Beautifully put. X

    Sent from Samsung Mobile

  5. May 4, 2014 7:28 pm

    Thank you for another witty and insightful read Alex. Could I possibly trouble you for a G+ button on your blog so I can have a slightly lazier way of sharing you out?

  6. grumpyaccountantnick james permalink
    May 4, 2014 10:44 pm

    Alex, nail on the head. I feel exactly as you do but not as capable as you at expressing my anger at the shysters that pass themselves off as our leaders but do little other than spread, to great effect, poisonous propaganda of which Goebbels would have been proud.

    I have a few Bulgarian and Romanian clients, all of them, in the current vernacular, hard-working people, decent and easier to deal with quite a few Brits of my acquaintance.

    Keep up the great work.

  7. bjsalba permalink
    May 23, 2014 10:00 am

    Well, it looks like the snake oil salesman has done well.

    If inequality is the problem, how do we solve it then?

  8. June 23, 2014 5:01 pm

    Brilliant article. Thanks.

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