Message sent abroad by toxic debate on immigration could have a devastating effect on our economy

It’s crucial to state clearly that the benefits of legal migration outweigh the costs, and that those benefits support the Government’s strategy to get growth back into the economy

Related Topics

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister visited China at the head of a major trade delegation. It’s become fashionable to scoff at senior politicians beating the drum around the world for British trade and investment. Isn’t this just displacement activity? Haven’t they got better things to do and more urgent problems to solve at home?

The reality is that securing export orders abroad, attracting foreign investment and promoting British higher education, are integral to the Government’s – any government’s – economic growth strategy. I spent nearly forty years as a British diplomat, and a sizeable chunk of that time promoting trade and investment links in Japan, where I was Ambassador for four and a half years until the end of 2012. Japan is still the world’s third largest economy, and a major trade and investment partner of the UK. A ministerial trade mission gives profile to British firms chasing commercial opportunities and sends a crucial message to foreign business leaders that their investment in the UK is welcomed and supported at the highest levels. We may have become blasé about political messages of this kind in Britain. Foreign governments have not.

So it’s doubly important that we don’t send mixed messages about just how open for business Britain is. An increasingly toxic political debate on immigration, encouraging politicians to outdo each other to reflect public concerns, plays immediately into doubts abroad about what the British really think on this issue.  

This is partly about ensuring that border control policies and procedures don’t conflict with the messages of welcome being sent by other parts of Government. But it’s also about understanding the importance of legal migration as part of the Government’s economic growth strategy – and not being frightened off making that case by anti-immigration rabble-rousers.

All the evidence is that migrants put more into the economy than they take out.  Only a tiny minority – around 6 per cent – claim benefits. Last month’s University College, London report suggested that migrants from Europe, including Eastern Europe, have contributed on average a net £2,610 per head since 2007.  We need these contributions to help fund public services like the NHS.  

We also need them to tackle our burden of public debt. The anti-immigration lobby argues that the population of Britain is out of control and that the barriers need to be drawn up. But the fact is that holding down the population below some arbitrary level risks our national well-being. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that ending net migration would mean that by the middle of the 21st century, our national debt will soar to levels higher than Greece’s today. This would mean higher taxes, deeper cuts and zero growth. The idea that we can detach our economic growth strategy from the continued need for legal migration is a fantasy.

Foreign governments and foreign companies watch these political discussions in Britain with close interest and increasing concern. Some British politicians and commentators seem to think that for a foreigner to express views – about visa regulations or about Britain’s EU policy, for example – is a bit of an impertinence. But these countries have increasingly important economic stakes in Britain. Japan, for example, has 1300 companies here employing 130,000 directly and many more hundreds of thousands in the supply chain. Foreign firms are creating jobs and prosperity here. They have the right, indeed, the responsibility, to involve themselves in the public debate. 

When I was Ambassador in Japan I was often quizzed – in real time – about politicians’ statements on Britain’s future in the EU. To understand British Government thinking on this is integral to major Japanese companies’ investment plans, as Carlos Ghosn of Nissan made clear recently. The same will be true of firms in China, India and Brazil. Where immigration is a major issue in the bilateral relationship, the same scrutiny will be given to politicians’ pronouncements and what they tell foreign observers about how open a country Britain really wants to be. And I have to say that, in my experience, protestations that Britain can be a stronger country by pulling up the drawbridge and going it alone are met by polite bewilderment. 

This is not a private, internal argument. It’s a debate that resonates instantly and powerfully around the world. If the UK Independence Party’s stated intention to make next year’s European elections a referendum on immigration policy is followed through, there is a danger that this debate will become more intense and more destructively polarised. That is why it’s crucial to state clearly that the benefits of legal migration outweigh the costs, and that those benefits support the Government’s strategy to get growth back into the economy. Getting that message across will reassure Britain’s economic partners worldwide that we have not had a collective rush of blood to the head and embraced a set of views that fly in the face of economic reality.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

KS1 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Supply Teacher re...

KS2 Teaching Supply Wakefield

£140 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Primary Teachers Needed for Supply in Wakefield

£140 - £160 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1&2 Supply Te...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Residents of the Gravesham constituency are 10 times closer to what Peter Hain scorns as the “Westminster elite” than are those of Linlithgow and East Falkirk  

Will no one stop the march of localism?

Jonathan Meades
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam