Skip to main content

On immigration, the The Tories should stop following and start leading

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, delivers a warning to the Conservative Party about the likely effects of an increasingly reactive policy on immigration. 

Published on:

A day or two before David Cameron made his long-awaited ‘big speech’ on immigration, Nick Clegg warned him not to float plans that would see ‘the British people…plunged into a cycle of wild overpromising and inevitable disappointment, their scepticism confirmed.’

That Clegg had a point should surprise no-one. After all, when it comes to ‘wild overpromising’ leading to ‘inevitable disappointment’ which confirms people’s scepticism, he is something of a past master. But although the Prime Minister stepped back from the brink, dropping all talk of entry quotas on EU citizens, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the Conservative Party is increasingly locked into just the kind of cycle that the Deputy Prime Minister described.

If that is the case, then, sadly, the Tories have no-one to blame but themselves. True, research suggests that public anxiety about immigration has increased as the numbers entering the UK have risen. But it also suggests that they take their cues not just from the media but from politicians, especially when, as with immigration, the impact of an issue is largely indirect rather than personal.


Ever since the mid-sixties, when they established a lead over Labour as the best party to handle the issue, the Tories have been tempted to exploit it for electoral purposes, especially - although not exclusively - while in opposition. This was never more the case than after 1997, when the Party’s leaders chose to bang on about bogus asylum seekers, to envision Britain turning into ‘a foreign land’, and to blow the dog whistle by insisting (who knew?) that it wasn’t racist to talk about immigration. 

This, combined with the huge influx of migrants presided over by the Blair government, and the hostile reaction to that influx on the part of many media outlets, helped drive immigration remorselessly up the electorate’s agenda.

Then along came David Cameron who, for a while, confused everyone by virtually refusing to talk about the issue for the first eighteen months of his leadership.  Having been marched to the top of the hill on immigration by his predecessors, those voters for whom it was a particular bugbear felt abandoned and some of them began to look elsewhere, especially to Ukip and Nigel Farage – a man who was more than happy to carry on where Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard had left off.

Conservative vote

When Cameron suddenly returned to the issue towards the end of 2007 – largely to shore up the Conservative vote when it looked like Brown might call and win a snap election – most of those voters eventually returned to the fold. But, for all the pre-election promises about reducing net migration to the tens rather than the hundreds of thousands, and for all the tough measures that have been enacted since 2010, the damage had been done. 

Immigration was now capable of rivalling the economy for top spot as ‘the most important issue facing the country’ - although never the most important issue facing people or their families personally. At the same time, Cameron was suspected by those particularly exercised by it of being flakey on the issue.

Diminishing returns

Still, we are, as they say, where we are. So what is to be done?  

First, someone has to shout - or at least whisper - stop! The law of diminishing returns – both practical and rhetorical – has long since set in when it comes to announcing new laws to limit entry and eligibility. But given Labour’s even greater sensitivity to being seen as a soft touch on immigration, and given UKIP’s interest in keeping the pot boiling, it will have to be the Tories that do the shouting.

Indeed, there is a good argument to say that only the Conservatives can do it. Arguably, the Conservative brand is best suited to the task of helping to bring the country to its senses on the issue.

The Conservative Party long enjoyed a reputation for hard-headed realism, rather than as a maker of far-fetched promises. The brand was all about balancing the protection of national identity, sovereignty and tradition with the reliance of a trading nation and a diplomatic power on relatively open markets and good global relationships. It was also about reconciling a degree of compassion with an understandable concern not to be 'taken for a ride'. 

All these things make it the ideal rallying point for a sensible stance on immigration in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the Tories have spent a few years following rather than leading on the issue. Surely it’s now time to give leadership a try.


Such leadership arguably isn’t really about particular policy measures, although there may be one or two individual initiatives worth trying. If the government really cares about both control and integration as much as it claims, for instance, then it’s about time that it put its money where its mouth is when it comes to border protection - including counting people in and out - and English language classes. Doing something to reduce UK PLC’s demand for migrant workers by providing British kids not just with the skills they need but with the work ethic and character to make them count could help too.


Just as important though, is working to establish a calm, clear narrative anchored in the practical and the possible – one that treats people as the concerned adults they really are rather than as toddlers whose every tantrum must be appeased. 

Recent research from British Future suggests this stands a reasonable chance of working. It might just be possible if Conservatives can find it in themselves to go out and really sell the success stories of first and second generation immigrants, and to show how the UK’s ethnic minorities are a huge asset when it comes to trading with the rest of the world. For this to succeed, the party would have to abandon the idea of a quintessential England in favour of an acknowledgement that our nation – like our language – has and always will thrive by incorporating immigrants and the innovations they bring.

About the author

Tim Bale is Professor Politics at Queen Mary University of London.  He is the author of two books on the Tories 'The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron' (Polity, 2011) and 'The Conservatives since 1945: the Drivers of Party Change' (OUP, 2012).  His latest book is the third edition of his 'European Politics: a Comparative Introduction' (Palgrave, 2013). He tweets @ProfTimBale. He is also course director of the new MA in British Politics.

Back to top