In the new BBC documentary "The Truth About Immigration", journalist Nick Robinson interviews an economist who, during the economic boom years at the start of the millennium, was instrumental in Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to adopt an expansive immigration policy.
The economist, Jonathan Portes, tells Robinson that the idea was to bring in new workers who would fill skill gaps and allow "growth to carry on at a faster clip than it otherwise would have."
Then Robinson gently prods Portes to acknowledge another agenda of the British elites. He asks, "Was there not also something where business, the treasury, the Bank of England, were worried that inflation would take off when growth was high, and immigration was a way of keeping the lid on wages?"
Answers Portes, rather blandly, "I'm sure the treasury viewed immigration as potentially helpful in dampening wage growth."
"And big business?" Robinson asks. "And big business," Portes acknowledges.
"And the Bank of England?" asks Robinson. "And the Bank of England," says Portes.
That's quite a line-up of the British economic power structure. They certainly got the immigration policy they wanted. As Robinson notes, "Any worries about negative impacts were trumped by the prospect of real economic benefits."
It is one of the most enlightening moments of Robinson's excellent documentary, which aired last week in Britain, where calls for slowing the pace of immigration are becoming more insistent. After a decade of mass immigration from the EU and other parts of the world, the call to reduce the pace of immigration is now receiving support across a broad spectrum of political opinion.
Robinson notes that Portes and other architects of the expansive policy claimed that everyone would benefit from an expanding economy.
"And the better off certainly noticed," he says. "They noticed the cheaper Polish plumber or decorator. They enjoyed the nice new delicatessen down the road. But the worst off in society noticed something rather different. They thought that their job was at risk. They thought their wages were being undercut. They often thought that their identity was threatened, too. A big choice had been made by the politicians, but they scarcely bothered to consult the public."
And why was that? Robinson turns for the answer to David Blunkett of the Labour Party, who as home secretary administered immigration policy. Blunkett offers this response: "We didn't spell out in words of one syllable what was happening because of a fear of racism."
Robinson talks with Michael Howard, a conservative who counters with a populist commentary on the keep-them-in-the-dark strategy: "I don't think that's the way politics in a democratic society should be conducted."
As Robinson shows, the policy that was adopted with little public discussion of its likely effects now faces growing opposition from the large majority of the British public that feels it has been forced to accept too much change too rapidly. He cites a public opinion survey that showed that even among first- and second-generation immigrants, 60 percent want to see a cut in immigration. He speaks with an immigrant who says, in effect, that the new wave is damaging his chance to achieve the British dream.
Robinson speaks with ordinary people who are so opposed to the current policy that they would be willing to pay higher taxes to see immigration restricted. He interviews the most outspoken and controversial immigration critic on the British political scene, Nigel Farage of the rightist UK Independence Party. "There are some things in a society, in a community that actually matter more than money," Farage says.
There is one exchange that provides a remarkably clear demonstration of the chasm between the concerns and priorities of ordinary Brits and those of the elites. It involves Robinson and Lord Gus O'Donnell, who as Cabinet Secretary was one of the most powerful members of the Blair administration.
Robinson says: "I can imagine someone listening to this and saying, 'It's alright for you. That's my child who's not getting a job or my child whose wages are depressed. It's alright for the establishment to tell me, 'Open the borders.' It's us that gets hurt."
O'Donnell replies: "And I would say, 'What I want for your child is for your child to have a very prosperous and good education. And to come up in a, grow up in a society that creates great opportunities for them. So we do need to be open. Yes, it will be more competitive. But that's the world we're in."
Here's a fact that Robinson doesn't mention but that reveals a great deal about the world O'Donnell is in. Last July, as the Daily Mirror reported, O'Donnell was "accused of 'cashing in' by joining a firm that helps big business sway government policy." After watching Robinson's documentary, I'd say it appears that O'Donnell was already doing that when he was helping to shape government policy.
Robinson makes an appeal for the sort of well-informed and civil discussion that the BBC failed to foster for so many years. That, of course, means respecting the public's insistence on recognizing the downsides of the government's immigration policy. So he calls for moderation, asking a rhetorical question: "Are we now in danger of ignoring the upsides?"
Robinson's final words are a remarkable acknowledgement of the void that was enforced upon the national discussion of immigration by elites in the media and politics who wanted to keep the public uninformed and quiescent. Says Robinson, "Perhaps it is now time for that frank and open discussion that we've never really had."