People were quite surprised, but there we were in June 2009 on the “living room” top floor of the now former City Hall at the presentation by London School of Economics academics of a report commissioned by London Mayor Boris Johnson into the notion of letting illegal immigrants remain in the nation later to be known as “Brexit Britain”.
The 125-page document quantified the likely economic effect on the capital’s economy – and the UK’s as a whole – of permitting what it termed “an earned regularisation” of the status in the country of “irregular migrants” who had been here for at least five years.
Based on a central estimate that about 440,000 irregulars of various kinds lived in London at the time – a tidy chunk of its then population of 7.6 million – and around 620,000 in the UK as a whole, the report tentatively calculated that an additional £3 billion a year (or about 0.2 per cent) could be added to national gross domestic product if irregulars were regularised and so legitimised in the labour market, becoming taxpayers and so on.
Mayor Johnson, not for the first time, professed enthusiasm, as he had when seeking election in 2008 (see screen grab above). He said the report “introduced some long overdue facts, hard evidence and academic rigour into a debate which has far too often been dominated by myth, anecdote and hearsay” and showed that “an amnesty” would not “inevitably lead to increased migration to the UK”.
London Assembly Green Party member and chair Darren Johnson welcomed the report too. But the Labour government’s immigration minister Phil Woolas had already dismissed the Mayor’s idea as “naive” and bound to encourage people trafficking.
The episode is one of the more striking in those early stages of Johnson’s mayoral tenure, when he quite often came across as rather liberal. Later, he would proudly declaim that he was one of the few politicians in the country with a positive attitude to immigration.
Today, Prime Minister Johnson is a stout defender of sending people seeking political asylum in Britain to Rwanda on a one-way ticket. What changed?
Not quite as much as it might seem at first glance. Johnson’s 2009 pro-amnesty position was expressed largely in pragmatic terms: he reasoned that at the rate they were going at the time “it would take the authorities over 60 years to remove the current number of irregular migrants”, a category that embraced people who had entered the country illegally in the first place, “overstayers” – unsuccessful asylum seekers and others – and the UK-born children of irregular migrants; and he argued that it made more sense for irregulars to be contributing towards the cost of public services that were allowed to use.
He presented such a response as a logical one in light of what he deemed failures in immigration policy under Labour governments, meaning a failure to prevent irregulars from entering the country in large numbers in the first place. In other words, he wasn’t in favour of more liberal immigration policies, but a make-the-best-of-it approach to outcomes of existing ones. Furthermore, when seeking the Tory leadership in 2019 he punted the idea of an amnesty for – as the Daily Mail moderately put it – “tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who have been in Britain for more than 15 years”.
What is different now, though, is significant. In 2009, Johnson rejected the claim that “earned regularisation” would encourage people trafficking. Today, he insists that sending newcomer asylum seekers to Africa will positively discourage it. And, of course, the whole tone of his interventions is quite different reflecting the different political context in which he finds himself: the buoyant, freshly-elected Mayor of multicultural London could burnish his liberal credentials by speaking up for amnesties; the wounded Prime Minister of Brexit Britain has no such incentive – quite the opposite.
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