How Theresa May ended up to the right of Enoch Powell on immigration

26th April, 2017 1:00 pm

It almost happened. Theresa May has been under constant pressure from Labour’s frontbench to remove international students from the government’s net migration target.

Net migration is determined by the total number of people who enter and leave the UK. May has consistently argued – and maintains – that net migration includes all who come and go not least students and so they should remain in the government’s net migration target. She is refusing to change her mind and clams she has no choice. This is untrue.

May is correct that net migration statistics currently include foreign students. But she is not correct to claim that the government’s target must be inflexibly tied to one statistic. It is just as easy to say the target will look at migrants, but not foreign students. But this is a political decision – May is not required to do this. She is choosing to do this.

By failing to remove foreign students, she risks damaging one of Britain’s greatest cultural and economic assets – our world-leading universities. Of course I would say this as a professor and head of a distinguished law school, but it’s also true. May’s decision has been called a “mystery” – not least because cutting students damages not only the funding of higher education, but even more importantly damages the vibrant intellectual culture our universities are best at globally. Where Britain retreats, others will step in.

The biggest surprise to me is this. Enoch Powell is not someone I would normally cite approvingly – and especially not from his outrageous “Rivers of Blood” speech, because looking at his words can leave me feeling ill – but in researching my book Becoming British, I discovered by closely reading his speech this comment about students: “They are not, and never have been, immigrants.”

So the big question we must ask the Tories: if even Enoch Powell – in his most infamous of infamous speeches – accepts that foreign students should not count as migrants, why has Theresa May decided they do?

Any government that is to the right of Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech on migrants should be seen for the outrage that it is. While it may be wishful thinking, it is not too late for May to do the right thing – and change her mind on students.

Labour must increase the pressure on May to stop using students to meet her arbitrary targets. The government tries to address public anxieties about immigration by blocking a group the public does not view as immigrants. If the public and even Powell don’t see this, it’s hard to believe that May’s government does.

If May is serious about Britain continuing to keep its door open to “the brightest and the best” as she said in her Brexit speech, then Labour must hold her to account. We need to shine a bright spotlight on May’s record and let her lack of action speak louder than her empty promises. Labour can defend a progressive immigration policy and win public support. Removing international students from May’s migration target is a first step in the right direction.

Thom Brooks is head of Durham Law School and author of Becoming British (Biteback, 2016).

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