Only a year ago, David Cameron's "I agree with Nick" became the catchphrase of Britain's first televised electoral debates. "I agree with the British National Party" is a rather less acceptable thing to say, at least in polite society, but the far-right party's response to Mr Cameron's lavishly-trailed speech on immigration yesterday could hardly be bettered, if not in quite the way it intended.
"It's almost like a ceremonial adoption of our policy..." its spokesman said. "He completely ignores that until two weeks before a major poll and then all of a sudden starts pressing a few buttons to try and make people believe he's actually doing something about immigration. It's a farce, it's a con, and if we had copyright on our manifesto we'd have our lawyers round his office within hours."
Well, it is a farce and it is a con, and the timing – three weeks, in fact, before local elections – not to speak of the audience and the venue (Conservatives in lily-white Hampshire), bore the hallmarks of quite a cynical political calculation. But there's probably no need for the BNP to worry about copyright – or, indeed, for the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, to get quite as hot under the collar as he did yesterday – because on past performance Mr Cameron has little intention of acting on the inference of his words. This was a play for his political base, intended to deliver doubting voters from the temptation of putting their cross beside the Ukip candidate, or even the BNP, come 5 May.
Such tactics cannot just be laughed off. They hold acute dangers on two fronts. There is the danger from disillusioned voters if the Government fails to follow up in the way those concerned about immigration might now feel they have been led to expect, and the danger of sowing social discord in places where, for the most part, little currently exists.
But those who argue, some out loud in scare-mongering mode and some in an embarrassed whisper, that there is little that can be done, are not being completely honest either. Yes, we live in an age of globalisation and mass travel, and there is free mobility within the EU. But there are measures that can be taken to reduce immigration – if that is what is wanted. The trouble is that almost any action sets powerful interest groups against each other: businesses, for example, against trade unions and the low-paid. It is far easier to maintain a certain level of deceit according to which restrictions are presented as draconian, even though they will have very little effect, while quite modest changes that would allay some of the public concern, are either rejected or just never made.
In his speech yesterday, Mr Cameron paraded a figure for net immigration under the previous, Labour, government, that many people will find shocking – exactly as they were intended to. More than 2 million people is a lot of people, even over 13 years. This panders to one of the biggest, and least addressed, public worries: that successive governments have simply thrown up their hands and flung open the borders. Raw numbers, however, should be less of an issue than competence, not least because the numbers themselves are suspect.
The UK is almost alone in having no systematic monitoring of people leaving the country, yet this Government, like the last, insists on citing figures for "net" immigration, so perpetuating two pernicious misconceptions. The first is that those coming in and those leaving can be equated (they cannot); the second is that the immigration figures are lower than they actually are. This statistical ruse has actually come back to bite this Government, as a recent fall in (estimated) departures makes "net" immigration look higher than it would otherwise be. A promise to reinstate exit controls at the borders – essential to give migration figures credibility – has not been treated as the priority it should have been.
The second deceit is the lavishly publicised "cap" and points system, which still appears to command far more public confidence than it deserves to. Free labour mobility within the EU means that it can apply to only a relatively small proportion (20 per cent) of those intending to work here. The greater drawback of the "cap", though, is that it will not have anything like the advertised effect even for those it does cover.
Little by little, the Government has succumbed to pressure from particular lobbies (businesses wanting skills they are reluctant to pay for and colleges, including a large number of English-language schools, whose viability depends on foreign students' fees). It also seems reluctant to tackle Britain's comparatively generous terms for family reunion – the other big group of non-EU new arrivals which it could do something about. It is here where the problems of cultural difference and inadequate English are greatest.
This is doubtless one reason why the Government has specifically addressed marriage visas, raising the age and requiring a command of English. But the focus on knowledge of English risks perpetuating another anomaly. If you look around, the UK might seem studded with English-language colleges – those very schools wanting to protect their income in the face of student-visa restrictions – but provision for those who arrive other than as students is haphazard and often expensive and inconvenient.
Any government that is serious about encouraging integration into British life should not rely on a new generation of spouses from the Indian subcontinent speaking English. It should set about making it much easier for non-English speakers to learn the language once they are here. This means not just subsidised – preferably free – English-language classes, but round-the-year English and citizenship courses that could be broadcast on the BBC as part of its public-service responsibilities. Commercial colleges might squeal about unfair competition, but the amount of money spent translating official communications into other languages – the census was offered in more than 50 – could be more usefully spent on English tuition.
By far the most effective way to combat the BNP, and those who flirt with them, is for comfortably settled migrants, armed with accurate statistics, to answer back. In the one language it understands.