Alan Johnson, home secretary, has recently admitted that the government has been “maladroit” in its handling of immigration. This is British understatement. It has been dishonest: it has pursued a radical policy, with profound consequences, on weak grounds, without serious debate. That is why the British National party is on BBC television.

The government has been able to get away with its dishonesty because immigration is the “third rail” of politics. Few wish to discuss the topic openly. But some discussion is essential. Present policies have big implications. These should be evaluated and discussed openly. That is the democratic way.

So let us start with a few facts.

First, on the government’s own figures, the population of the UK is likely to hit 70m by 2030. Immigration would account for 70 per cent of the increase, directly and via births from immigrant parents. The assumption here is that the net inflow would continue at 190,000 a year. It might be higher: government actuaries have, in the past, tended to underestimate the immigration rate.

Second, under the Labour government, net foreign immigration rose from 107,000 in 1997 to 333,000 in 2007. The overall net inflow, if one allows for emigration by British citizens, reached 237,000 in 2007. The total net inflow of foreign citizens over the period has been 3m, or roughly 5 per cent of the population. To this must be added illegal immigrants whose numbers can only be guessed: one such guess is 620,000.

Third, net immigration from outside the European Union, which is, in principle, subject to control, has dominated the net inflow: this has been running at around 200,000 a year since 2000. Asylum seekers have become a small part of the total. Of admissions from outside the EU, the number due to marriage rose from 20,000 to about 40,000 a year and that due to receipt of work permits jumped from 20,000 a year in the early 1990s to about 130,000 a year.

Fourth, roughly 40 per cent of the forecast increase in the number of households will be due to immigration. Already, just over half of inner London school pupils have a first language other than English. Continuing immigration will transform populations in many areas.

Such changes are significant. Are they desirable? Some argue that it is wrong, in principle, to draw arbitrary lines across the globe: people should be allowed to live wherever they wish.

The UK has a real income per head of about five times the world average. One must assume that the inflow, under unrestricted immigration, might be numbered in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions. The impact is not hard to imagine.

I, for one, have no difficulty with arguing that immigration is a privilege, not a right. Most people agree. We are then, inescapably, in the messy world of having to decide how – and on what principles – to control immigration. My view is that the interests of the existing citizens are of decisive weight, though we should also place some weight, too, on the interests of immigrants.

Let us look at three considerations: economic; environmental; and social.

The economic argument is the one the government has resorted to most frequently, backed by business. Yet there is little net economic benefit to the existing population from immigration. After all, some of the world’s richest countries are small and homogeneous. What benefit there is depends on the economic and social characteristics of the migrants. Moreover, the economic impact must include both sides of the ledger, including the costs of new homes and infrastructure.

The bigger the population, the more congested a country becomes. True, even England – the most densely populated country in Europe, after Malta – is not “full up”: on my calculations, the population would be 700m, if its density were that of London. Nevertheless, the impact of accommodating a population increase of 10 million, equal to seven Birminghams, would be substantial. This is particularly true in a country unwilling to expand the housing stock or invest in infrastructure. At a time of public sector stringency, the difficulties will be enormous.

Diversity brings social benefits. But it also brings costs. These costs arise from declining trust and erosion of a sense of shared values. Such costs are likely to be particularly high when immigrants congregate in communities that reject some values of the wider community, not least over the role of women in society. It is not unreasonable to feel concern over such rifts. I certainly do.

In short, the arguments in favour of a continuation of present policies must be made: the government has never attempted to do so. It must, moreover, rest far more on wider social than economic considerations: the intrinsic desirability of a UK with a substantially more heterogeneous and larger population. In the long run, the UK would become more like the US. Whether it can do successfully is very much open to question. But, at least, this would be an honest argument. Let the government make it. If it fails to do so, the argument should turn, instead, to how to slow the inflow.

martin.wolf@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/martinwolf

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