The first general election in which I took an interest was in 1964, when Harold Wilson put an end to 13 years of Conservative rule, and the man who was about to become his Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker, was defeated in Smethwick by a Conservative who campaigned on the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour.”
Four years later, Enoch Powell shared his nightmare vision of a Britain over-run by immigrants (“Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’.”) And he was promptly sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by Edward Heath.
In those days, the debate about immigration was often in reality a debate about race. People who told you there were too many immigrants coming to Britain usually meant that there were too many black and brown people. Immigrants were people who came from the Caribbean, India and Pakistan. Countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, on the other hand, were safely sealed off behind an Iron Curtain, out of sight and out of mind.
Not any more. The end of the Cold War and an expanding European Union mean there is now a growing number of people moving between the EU’s different member states. Those in poorer countries are looking for work in the richer ones -- rather like the Irish immigrants who used to look for work in England and Scotland. They are white, not black or brown. So race is no longer a major part of the equation.
Here’s a little test for you. Is an Irish businessman in Birmingham an immigrant? A Scottish university lecturer in Brighton? A Canadian teacher in Bristol? A Japanese student in Burnley?
Here’s another little test. Every time you see the word “immigrant”, substitute the word “foreigner”. When we discuss the problems caused by higher numbers of immigrants, are we really talking about our suspicion of foreigners? Is it that we feel uncomfortable when we can’t understand what our fellow-passengers on the bus are saying? Or when there are products on the supermarket shelves that we neither recognise nor understand?
Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am myself the British-born son of immigrants. But that doesn’t mean I am not conscious of the strains that an influx of migrants can put on a society. I suspect that most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are suspicious of what we don’t understand.
In his speech about immigration a few days ago, David Cameron said: “Until the 1980s, for much of our recorded history, Britain was a 'sending country', in that we had net emigration. Today, like the rest of the developed world, we are a 'receiving country', in that we have net immigration -- and immigration at a speed and scale we have rarely seen before.”
The same is true in many other European countries. In Italy, as we heard on the programme last night, they too are debating immigration levels, and crime, and deporting undesirables. In France, the Netherlands, Norway, Germany – nearly everywhere in the EU’s richer countries, you will find people worried about the numbers of immigrants.
Local councils say they can’t cope with the extra demands on scarce resources. Yet the overwhelming majority of the new migrants work and pay taxes. So if there is a shortage of doctors, schools or housing, it’s perhaps more to do with inadequate planning than with excess numbers. As we have seen over just the past few days, the government even finds it difficult to come up with an accurate estimate of how many people there are in the UK who have arrived from overseas. And I have yet to see a future population projection that turns out to be even half-way accurate.
In some ways, we have come full circle. It is just over 100 years since Britain’s first immigration legislation was passed: it was the Aliens Act of 1905, passed because of growing fears of worsening health and housing conditions in the East End of London, where thousands of Russian and Polish Jews were settling.
But those were the days long before the EU’s Single European Act, signed into law in 1986, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. It enshrined a single European market, defined as "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured.” It’s that single word – “persons” – which few seemed to notice at the time. We’re noticing now.