The walkway at London’s Tower Bridge offers stunning views of the city. Image Credit: Supplied picture

No first-time visit to New York is complete without a trip to the Statue of Liberty. The lines on the plaque beneath the statue, from a sonnet by Emma Lazarus, are as uplifting as they are famous: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

There is no such shrine to the free movement of people in the UK, no similar paean to the liberating potential of immigration. There should be: Britain has turned into America, albeit by default and without any real national debate. Last year, 16.6 per cent of the UK population of working age was born abroad; in 2013, 16.3 per cent of the US civilian workforce was foreign-born.

Of course, virtually all Americans are at the very least the great-grandchildren of immigrants; that is still much less true of Brits. But 36 per cent of New York City’s entire population is foreign-born; an almost identical 37 per cent of Londoners were born overseas.

London now feels more cosmopolitan even than New York. The difference is that the US sees itself, self-consciously, as a nation of immigrants while we do not. In part, this is because a large percentage of the British public remains unhappy about this new reality; but given that it won’t change, regardless of who wins the next election, the best strategy now should be to try to make it work as best as possible for us.

These numbers certainly highlight the intellectual bankruptcy of what passes for our national debate on immigration. Even if we were to pull out of the EU and introduce a points system for new arrivals, none of what has already happened would be reversed. The inflow of migrants would be reduced but not halted; and the share of the foreign-born in the workforce would only decline slowly, if at all.

It is hard to keep a lid on immigration in today’s globalised world. While the US has long imposed a far stricter immigration policy — unlike our effectively open borders with Europe — its share of migrant workers is the same as ours. It also has a much bigger problem with illegal immigration. Changing the UK’s rules would cut the number of arrivals but not by as much as proponents are hoping. Even if you want to regulate immigration, or change the composition of those who move here, it’s pretty hard truly to slash overall numbers while simultaneously maintaining an open, prosperous society.

Australia’s point system is often held up as the answer, including by Ukip; but 27.7 per cent of Australians were born abroad, compared with 13 per cent of UK residents. Instead of vainly trying to eliminate migration, the policy in America and Australia is to absorb new arrivals and to ensure that they embrace their new country. This doesn’t always work as well as it should but it is a better attitude than sticking one’s head in the sand.

It should also be Britain’s approach. Citizenship ceremonies are not enough; we need a much more aggressive policy of integration, especially among those groups most susceptible to fall for Islamist propaganda. We also need to reform welfare further for new arrivals, making sure that it is never attractive to move to the UK merely for benefits; but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would make much of a difference to the overall numbers of arrivals, which are primarily driven by jobs.

The UK has another peculiarity: like many other rich countries, we import a lot of people; but unlike them we also export a lot of Brits. The Home Office estimates that 4.7-million UK-born people live abroad. We rank eighth highest globally for the number of emigrants, an astounding figure for a small, wealthy country. The vast majority of those departing our shores are of working age and they are often highly qualified — they are economic migrants in pursuit of a better life, just like the Eastern Europeans who arrive daily in Britain.

Lots of UK pensioners now live in Spain and France, of course, but they are atypical. It is hard for a country to object to people moving in when so many of its own people are moving out. All of this brings us to the concept of controlling net migration, perhaps the greatest, most dishonest idea to have been adopted by the Westminster political establishment in recent years. As recently as the 2005 general election, when Michael Howard was defeated by Tony Blair, the Tory manifesto still called for “controlled immigration” — in other words, stricter limits on the numbers of people moving here, or what statisticians call gross immigration.

That pledge was widely seen to have backfired. By 2010 David Cameron was promising to slash something else altogether: net migration, the difference between people arriving and people leaving. It was a pledge that has ended in total failure. But he never stood a chance: by definition, net migration cannot be controlled by governments. One can, in theory at least, control the numbers of foreign passport holders coming into a country, though only by pulling out of the EU and ceasing to welcome genuine political refugees.

Cameron didn’t want to pursue either of these two avenues (and the latter would be inhumane); his only tool was thus to reduce non-EU immigration. But net migration is not just about the number of people coming in; it also accounts for those leaving. No free society can or should control the number of people seeking to move abroad, or prevent UK citizens from moving back in. So the government was trying to target a statistic of which it controlled at most one out of five determinants. The only way it could have worked was if a recession in the UK had encouraged an exodus and reduced our economy’s attractiveness to migrants.

The Tories originally adopted the concept as a way to tap into anti-immigration sentiment while explicitly rejecting bigotry. The official, stated aim was no longer to stop people moving here from other countries: it was about ensuring that the population did not go up too quickly. The subtext was neo-Malthusian, rather than xenophobic — too much net immigration will increase the population too rapidly, it was claimed, pressurising housing, schools and hospitals, areas that are controlled by a public sector incapable of managing demand for its services. The new approach was a way for politicians to appeal to the immigration-sceptic mainstream while distancing themselves from BNP supporters.

There is one additional logical problem with this approach. If what we worry about is population growth, then we should care equally about other ways it can grow, including baby booms or the fact that pensioners are living longer. Needless to say, we don’t, and rightly so; we should cease to see humanity as a burden, and treat a growing population as a wonderful opportunity.

Our politicians should tell the public the truth: immigration to the UK will remain high for the foreseeable future, even if we quit the EU. The focus should be on stamping out abuse, drastically tightening welfare, improving the education and incentives of the UK-born to work, building more homes and, last but not least, imbuing newcomers with a love of Britain. Like America, we have become a nation of immigrants; we now need a British version of the American Dream to make sure that we continue to absorb newcomers while strengthening our society.

–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2015