When David Cameron addresses sensitive issues of race he has a knack for choosing inappropriate locations. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister delivered a speech on the evils of British-style multiculturalism in Munich. And yesterday he gave an address on the stresses caused by immigration in Romsey, a Hampshire town not known for being a hotbed of ethnic friction.
But the real problem with yesterday's speech by Mr Cameron was less the location than the logic. After the usual acknowledgement of the benefits of immigration, the Prime Minister went on to present flows of people from overseas as a threat to community cohesion. Mass immigration, he told us, has "created a kind of discomfort and disjointedness in some neighbourhoods". And he put the blame for this on immigrants "perhaps not able to speak the same language as those living there, on occasion not really wanting or even willing to integrate".
This is a one-eyed analysis. Mr Cameron failed to mention that, just as some migrant communities have failed to integrate, so have some host communities. The "white flight" seen in places such as Bradford and East London has been well documented. If separatism from ethnic minorities is deplorable, so too surely is its counterpart. The Prime Minister gave the unfortunate impression that he regards integration as a one-way street. Further, Mr Cameron's concerns about language barriers sound hypocritical coming from a Government that is cutting English lessons for migrants.
The Prime Minister also demolished a line of straw men. On forced marriages involving immigrant brides he argued that "I've got no time for those who say this is a culturally relative issue". Yet he omitted to name these deluded individuals who believe that forced marriages are acceptable. There was a pledge to be tough on bogus language colleges and migrants who outstay their visas. But, again, the Prime Minister neglected to identify those who have urged the Government to be relaxed about such abuses.
This was an intellectually disappointing speech. Mr Cameron repeated the pledge made by the Conservative Party before the last election to reduce annual immigration flows to "tens of thousands" a year by the end of the Parliament. But he made no attempt to justify this arbitrary figure. Other confusions proliferate on migration. The Government, normally so keen to rubbish the legacy of its predecessor, has unquestioningly retained Labour's points system for migrants. And ministers, usually so desperate to tear up the "red tape" that binds businesses, are scrambling to impose still more when it comes to hiring foreigners. The Prime Minister argued that welfare reform and immigration are "two sides of the same coin". But while the Government is right to attempt to dig people out of the pit of benefits dependency, Mr Cameron is being naïve if he thinks this will significantly curb demand from employers for unskilled and skilled workers from abroad.
The very purpose of the exercise was unclear. Despite the speech being heavily trailed by Downing Street, no new policy was announced. And most of the arguments from the Prime Minister were familiar. It is hard to disagree with the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who concluded that the true objective of the speech was to shore up Conservative support ahead of next month's local elections.
At one point yesterday Mr Cameron lapsed into nostalgia: "I remember when immigration wasn't a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again." But those days look depressingly far off. And they will remain so as long as politicians like Mr Cameron reach for immigration with one cynical eye on electoral advantage.