Tensions between the coalition partners – or at least between two key members of the respective parties – were dramatically exposed as business secretary Vince Cable turned on Prime Minister David Cameron over the issue of immigration.
Referring to a speech given by Cameron in which he talked about the problem of “mass immigration” and pledged to cut it to “tens of thousands”, Dr Cable responded by accusing the Prime Minister of electioneering and “inflaming extremism”.
Cameron claimed that his speech was “measured” and “sensible”. It was nothing of the sort. Cable is right – it is populist electioneering of the worst type; the politics of the lowest common denominator. Cameron was not announcing any new plans or a new policy – so why else did he feel it was necessary to make the speech in the first instance?
According to the BBC website, Cameron explained that during “discussions between the coalition partners on how to reduce immigration without damaging the economy, the issue had been ‘settled’...we have a very good and robust policy and this is the policy of the whole government.”
But it isn’t. The coalition agreement actually had very little to say on the issue of immigration, but in essence there was agreement for an annual cap on the number of non-EU workers admitted to live and work, with the mechanism to be decided later. That is far from a “settled issue” in anyone’s estimation.
I’m a believer in collective responsibility in coalition. Generally I’d prefer if ministers kept their differences behind closed doors. However, when no less a senior figure than the Prime Minister publicly states a position that promotes his party’s policy over that agreed by the coalition it is not only right that Liberal Democrats should respond appropriately and decisively - it is necessary. Cameron was risking government unity for the sake of party political opportunism and some populist headlines – not the kind of behaviour expected of the Prime Minister.
As Cable argues, Cameron’s stance is “very unwise”. It’s bad enough that this was flagrant electioneering. It’s regrettable that he’s promoted Conservative Party policy over coalition policy. What is worse is the inflammatory language Cameron used: phrases such as “mass immigration” and references to immigrants “who fail to speak English” are unhelpful to put it moderately. Already BBC News has been interviewing residents in BNP target wards asking them to what degree they agree with the Prime Minister’s diagnosis, while BNP MEP Andrew Brons has been given a platform for his repugnant views.
It appears that there was an unwritten agreement within the cabinet that a “truce” should be maintained for the time being – a sensible enough approach given that the Conservatives wanted a tougher line on immigration while the Lib Dems took a more relaxed, pragmatic approach. If this is the case, then Cameron has overstepped the mark and Cable is well within his rights to challenge him. It appears Cable was not informed in advance of the Prime Minister’s speech and the first he heard of it was in today’s newspapers. Whatever the central issue, excluding Cabinet colleagues from such announcements is hardly responsible leadership. How can Cameron actually deliver on a promise when the policy hasn't actually been decided by cabinet?
Cameron patently fails to recognise the value of immigration. He also sees no apparent contradiction in promoting a free market while seeking to close the drawbridges. He believes in the free movement of capital, but not in the free movement of people.
Yes, there are problems associated with immigration (not least UK citizens buying up properties in eastern European countries, thus artificially inflating the local housing market and causing “economic migrants” from those countries to look here for work). Some of these are social; others economic. What they require is a multi-lateral approach with other EU nations rather than glib, short-sighted and ill-advised comments aimed at securing a few votes. Perhaps work could also be done on tackling social deprivation in the UK, creating new employment opportunities and eradicating the culture of low pay and cheap labour. As long as the government remains inactive on this, there will be little incentive for people to move from benefits and into work that is currently attractive only to migrant workers.
I used to live in Sighthill, in Glasgow – an area which has seen its fair share of immigration-associated problems. Many of these problems were created by misinformed prejudices on the part of the “indigenous” population and pent-up frustrations caused by social deprivation and a lack of economic opportunity. I’ve witnessed how difficult it can be to discuss this issue responsibly and openly without creating disproportionate and hysterical responses. But let’s be honest; it’s not so much immigration that people are primarily concerned about but perceived injustice, poor living standards and the indifference of government to their plight.
The “learn English” approach favoured by Cameron might carry more weight if the government was actively providing opportunities to learn the language. As it is, he looks like a little-Englander defending “his country“ against the evils of cultural diversity. Interestingly, he doesn’t seem quite so concerned about British ex-pats living abroad without ever taking the trouble to learn the local language. I should add that most of the immigrants I’ve personally known speak excellent English – in fact, far better than many of my Scottish friends.
Immigration should not be a taboo subject. There is an urgent need to discuss it – and its by-products and associated problems – in a socially responsible, mature and informed fashion. David Cameron’s decision to raise this issue now, in the context of an election campaign, while not informing his Cabinet is inexcusable. Ed Miliband today suggested that the Prime Minister should “get a grip...get an agreed policy” before speaking out. I agree entirely.
The problems associated with immigration are not only about numbers - as even David Cameron accepts. There are several aspects to this difficult and complex issue. A simple cap on immigration and the establishment of arbitrary targets can not in themselves represent a practical solution.
The one positive from this is that Cable’s intervention demonstrates the distinct identity of the Liberal Democrats in coalition. Our commitment to responsible government does not mean we have lost the principles that define us. The last few days, in which the coalition partners’ respective positions on both NHS reform and immigration have been shown to be almost diametrically opposed, have sent a clear signal to voters that we may be in coalition but we’re no-one’s lackeys.