he starting point is always numbers,” the late, great theorist Stuart Hall wrote about reporting on migration and race in 1979. But as “soon as you say numbers, it doesn’t matter how you wrap it up – there is only one lesson to be drawn, the numbers are growing. There are too many of them”. This week Michael Gove demonstrated that this is as true now as it was 40 years ago, when he issued a warning about immigration levels. The government’s net migration target may be no more, but the same old anti-immigration arguments are still treated, in some quarters, as gospel.
On Monday morning, Gove was in the pages of the Times weighing in on the supposed “dangers” of “uncontrolled” and “unlimited” immigration. Although Labour has yet to agree its migration policy for the election, Gove referred to the motion at Labour conference that called on the party to maintain and extend free movement, denouncing this position as “extreme”. It would, he wrote, “mean massive pressure on public services – creating a shortage of school places, putting a huge strain on the NHS and increasing demand for housing”.
Three days earlier, the Conservatives had announced a supposedly liberal policy – the introduction of “half-price” visas and a fast-track process for medical professionals coming to the UK. Yet the Tories who want doctors and nurses to come from all over the world to work in the NHS consider most other migrants a threat to that same health service. When it suits them, they celebrate the important “contributions” that immigrants make to the UK. The rest of the time, however, we’re told that immigrants are “overwhelming” schools, housing and the NHS – that they are “drains” on the same public services the Tories have spent years underfunding.