That a great number of immigrants from the rest of the European Union were settling here purely to benefit from our welfare system was always implausible. I say that as somebody who would have to think very hard about which way to vote in a referendum on whether Britain should remain a member.
However, it is common sense that moving permanently to a foreign land, either alone or with your family, necessarily requires a high degree of self-confidence. You must believe that, yes, you could master a new language, that you could fit in with different customs and become self-sufficient far away from where you were born and raised. And such self-belief will usually be accompanied by a strong desire to work.
So I confess that I was not the least bit surprised by the report released by the European Commission on Monday that showed that fears that there was large-scale benefit tourism were unjustified. In the dry language of the report, “non-active EU migrants represent a very small share of the total population in each Member State. They account for between 0.7 per cent and 1.0 per cent of the overall EU population”. The notable exceptions are Belgium (3 per cent), Cyprus (4.1 per cent), Ireland (3 per cent) and Luxembourg (13.9 per cent). In this country, EU citizens made fewer than 38,000 out of the 1.4 million jobless benefit claims recorded during 2011 – a proportion of 2.7 per cent.
Moreover on average EU migrants are more likely to be in employment than nationals living in the same country. Why? Because they are young and, as everyday observations tell us, willing to work hard. So what did Downing Street have to say when this unpalatable news came through? There was, it insisted, “widespread and understandable public concern”. But note that Downing Street didn’t state that the European Commission findings were mistaken.
In cases where actual facts turn up to show that the Government is wrong, it is hard to know whether ministers have been suffering from self-delusion or whether they have deliberately allowed a mistaken idea to take hold – or whether, as I shall show in relation to Europe, they have been purposefully misleading the public.
Go back to the very beginning. The White Paper that was issued in July 1971 in preparation for Britain’s application to become a member asserted that there was “no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty”, adding that there was to be a “sharing and an enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest”. In addition it was stated that “the Common Law will remain the basis of our legal system, and our Courts will continue to operate as they do at present”. Almost all of this, signed off by a Cabinet that included Mrs Thatcher, was wrong. And I think the authors must have known it was. Indeed, a year later, just before we formally made our entry on 1 January 1973, the heads of Government of the existing European Community said that “The Member States… the driving wheels of European construction, declare their intention of converting their entire relationship into a European Union before the end of the decade.”
Moreover the free movement of workers within the EU, in other words, migration, has always been a feature. So here we are, in 2013, 55 years since unimpeded migration between member states was first established as a principle in the Treaty of Rome, bleating on about continental citizens lawfully settling among us.
If the White Paper was, frankly, a lie, the opt-out we secured from the freedom of movement for community citizens in the Single European Act of 1986, signed by Mrs Thatcher, was a delusion. It took the form of a General Declaration appended to the Treaty. However it was not legally binding and the Commission never shared the British interpretation. It was then, by the way, that we agreed to a system of majority voting in place of agreement by unanimity.
In effect, for the first 25 years of British membership, the governments of the day were intent on shielding voters from understanding how much sovereignty we had lost. There were always those, however, who saw clearly what was going on. As long ago as 1960, when British entry was first discussed, Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour leader, memorably observed: “Now we must be clear about this, it does mean the end of Britain as an independent nation-state. I make no apology for repeating it, the end of a thousand years of history. You may say: ‘All right let it end’. But, my goodness, it’s a decision that needs a little care and thought.” Then 26 years later, the Single European Act was approved by the Commons. But Labour voted against and 17 eurosceptic Conservative MPs also opposed it. That rebellion was the start of something.
By the time Parliament was called to approve the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, Conservative euroscepticism had multiplied. The Prime Minister, John Major, called the rebels “bastards” and “the dispossessed and the never-possessed”. And since then, the leaders of the Conservative Party have played a double game, appearing hostile to Europe and its iniquities when in front of the cameras but at the same time privately wishing to remain a member. That is the light in which the manufactured row about benefits tourism should be seen.