Yesterday’s announcement of a peerage for Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch.UK is another testament to the antiquated patronage system through which the British political class rewards those who have been useful to it, but the fact that Green has been chosen for this particular honour is in its way as much a barometer of our political present as Mike Read’s Ukip Calypso.
Green’s appointment was justified by the government as a reward for his public service as a diplomat, and also because he has ‘made a contribution by the work he has done on the migration and immigration debate.’ Green has been praised even by more thoughtful Tory commentators such as Peter Oborne, who ought to know better, as ‘one of the most morally courageous people in British public life’ and a courageous iconoclast, bravely speaking the truth about immigration when others were afraid to do so. The Conservative blogger and former Times columnist Tim Montgomerie has similarly claimed that Green has ‘faced a lot of hate for championing popular concern about immigration.â€
This is nonsense, for various reasons. There has never been a time when ‘debate’ about immigration has been ‘unfashionable’. On the contrary the subject has been a festering political obsession, particularly but not exclusively on the the right, ever since HMT Empire Windrush first arrived on these shores, regardless of whether immigrants come from the Caribbean, South Asia or Eastern Europe.
Beginning roughly in the late 90s, rightwing politicians and the tabloid press began to formulate a new narrative about immigration, which generally left out any overt references to race, culture or nationality, and argued instead that immigration was in constant crisis and that huge influxes of unwanted an unproductive foreigners were putting massive pressure on jobs and public services.
This campaign intitially took the form of a relentless and vicious assault on ‘bogus’ asylum seekers supposedly taking advantage of ‘soft-touch Britain’ that was often steeped in racist assumptions. It then widened its scope to include Eastern European Roma, and Eastern European migrants per se.
Whoever they were, wherever they came from, immigrants were always depicted as a problem, in a country that was ‘overcrowded’ and ‘full’ and drowning in a migrant ‘flood.’ On the one hand the right’s new crisis narrative claimed to be racially-neutral and nothing more than a responsible and democratic response to the legitimate concerns of the public, even as its media mouthpieces pulled out all the stops in an attempt to magnify and intensify these concerns. .
At the same time rightwing commentators and politicians claimed that these concerns were being deliberately suppressed by a politically-correct Labour government that was committed to the European project and intent on foisting ‘multiculturalism’ on an unwilling population regardless of its negative consequences for us poor old Brits. Even worse, the Blair and Brown governments were supposedly colluding with a politically-correct liberal establishment to suppress debate on the subject by dismissing the public’s legitimate concerns as ‘racist.’.
Enter Andrew Green. Since its formation in 2001 Green’s thinktank MigrationWatch has produced a series of statistical reports that depict immigration as an economic burden on the country, and immigrants as a threat to jobs, housing, schools, and public services.
Contrary to Tory claims that these efforts were unfashionable and against-the-grain, MigrationWatch very quickly became the lodestone of the anti-immigration lobby, to the point when the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia had already became the go-to person for the tabloid press within two year’s of the thinktank’s creation
This appeal stems largely from MigrationWatch’s single-minded concentration on numbers and statistics, however misleading, sensationalised and inaccurate, coupled with pithy populist extrapolations such as its 2007 argument that ‘the benefit to each member of the native population of the UK from immigration is worth about 4p a week – or less than the equivalent of a small Mars bar a month’ – an allegation that it later retracted in part.
On its website, MigrationWatch declares that ‘According to Government statistics, one immigrant arrives every minute, and a new British passport is issued every three minutes. In England, a new home for immigrants needs to be built every seven minutes; this will continue for the next 20 years.’
Wherever these ‘government statistics’ come from, the new home ‘every seven minutes’ is essentially unprovable. Not only does it assume that immigrants, like British citizens, don’t die, but it also assumes that they don’t leave. Nevertheless it’s an instantly memorable formulation that is clearly intended to press very specific buttons and make anyone reading it shudder with horror at the madness of it all, and that is the point of pretty much everything MigrationWatch does.
Despite its emphasis on numbers and cold facts, its findings have frequently been criticized for reaching conclusions that were not justified by the evidence, or for distorting the evidence provided by others. In March this year, for example, MigrationWatch argued that ‘ the immigration had cost UK taxpayers more than £26 million a day over a seventeen-year period, on the basis of research carried out by the UCL’s Center for Research & Analysis of Migration (CREAM).
CREAM subsequently accused MigrationWatch of a ‘stark misapprehension’ of its methodology, and reaching conclusions based on ‘ a substantial amount of guesswork’ that was ‘ at times sloppy or simply wrong.’
Such allegations have never bothered those who make use of these statistics, and who continue to present Andrew Green as an honest broker in an otherwise politically charged debate. The ever-balanced BBC described Green yesterday as an ‘immigration campaigner.’ But Green is in fact an anti-immigration campaigner, who belongs to a long tradition of British upper crust Little England anti-immigrationists that includes the Tory MP Major Evans-Gordon, Enoch Powell, and Nigel Farage.
Like them, Green also claims to be the defender of the little man, and MigrationWatch regularly includes ‘working class’ issues such as jobs and housing in its analyses of the damaging impact of immigration.You won’t hear Green criticizing falling wages, unemployment or the impact of Coalition austerity policies on the young, but you will hear him accusing immigrants of causing a crisis in social housing, or pricing the young out of London.
Although it shares the same aim of the Coalition government, to reduce immigration to the ‘low tens of thousands,’MigrationWatch relentlessly depicts immigration in the most negative terms, and ignores or dismisses any evidence that immigration might be beneficial to the country in any way whatsoever.
When it comes to immigration there is hardly a single rightwing box that it doesn’t tick. Withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights? Check. Derogate the right to deport suspected terrorists to countries where they might be tortured? Check. Immigration as a threat to ‘social cohesion’? Check. Are most asylum seekers really ‘economic migrants’? Check. Tougher border controls and increased deportations? Check. Screening for HIV-positive immigrants? Check.
In 2009, Green publicly supported the tabloid conspiracy theory that the Labour government had deliberately fostered ‘mass immigration’ as part of a ‘secret plot’ in order to create a multicultural society and ‘rub the right’s noses in the dirt.’
All this is sweet music, to some ears at least. And Green did not get to be a regular contributor on the ConservativeHome. website because of his political neutrality or because of his balanced and objective commentary, but because he says things that the right wants to hear, and because he says them in a way that appears to be superficially reasonable.
That is why MigrationWatch’s statistics are regularly cited by the BNP and Ukip. Both parties recognize the usefulness of the ‘numbers game’ that Green has played so effectively, regardless of how often MigrationWatch’s claims have been refuted. The government recognizes it too, and that is Green was made a lord yesterday, and why someone like Jonathan Portes, the Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, never will be.
It’s difficult not to agree with the conclusions of some commentators that this appointment was intended as a sop to Ukip and a crude attempt to persuade the public that the government shares the ‘concerns’ which Green – and the government itself – has helped to construct.
But his appointment also has more longterm implications. It demonstrates the extent to which xenophobia and anti-immigrationism have been elevated to the status of ‘common sense’ and unquestionable truth, and it proves once again, that when it comes to the great immigration debate, the government is only listening to the voices it wants to hear.