Immigration limits are ‘playing with fire’

Sustainable? The population of the UK has grown by more than 5m since 2001.

A commitment to cut migration to the UK to the “tens of thousands” will feature in the Tory manifesto. David Cameron made the same pledge, only to fail. Are politicians’ promises worthless?

“In the last decade, net migration in some years has been over 200,000, which I think is too much. We plan to reduce net annual migration to the tens of thousands.”

These are not the words of Theresa May, but of David Cameron. He said them in 2010, when he was still leader of the opposition.

He failed dismally on this promise. After an initial drop in net migration after Cameron came to office, the figure soared to 332,000 in 2015. The promise haunted Cameron, but he just kept sticking to it.

But yesterday Theresa May indicated that, yet again, the pledge would feature in the Conservative manifesto ahead of the upcoming general election. She stated that it was important for the government to aim for “sustainable” levels.

May was attacked from both the left and the right. The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron called the target “artificial”, while UKIP slammed the Tories for failing to keep past promises on immigration.

Politicians who make bold promises know they are playing with fire.

The Lib Dems’ pledge to oppose any increase to tuition fees, which were then raised when they entered government with the Tories, led to furious protests and to many students abandoning the party.

Another notable broken promise was Theresa May’s statement that she would not hold an early general election. Reacting to this in The Spectator, Isabel Hardman wrote that broken promises are a key reason why people, who have a “childlike sense of justice”, mistrust politicians.

The flip side of this is that politicians are “frightened of their own shadows to the extent that they do not want to make any sort of decision at all”.

But writing in The Atlantic, Brian Goldsmith points out that the majority of political promises are, in fact, kept. Barack Obama “delivered on about 70%t of his 2008 and 2012 campaign promises”. Many of the other 30% were blocked by Republicans. It was just the broken pledges that made all the headlines.

Should the unfulfilled pledges dampen our faith in politics?

Let’s be honest

Yes they should, say many indignant voters. Let’s not tiptoe around this: politicians who make promises they do not and cannot keep are flat-out dishonest. Radical promises are easy enough to announce, but voters want to see action. If politicians scaled back their proposals to achievable goals, people would to trust them.

“Minds change, circumstances alter,” reply others. It is unrealistic to expect politicians to keep every single promise they make, and actually the vast majority are kept. Such scepticism feeds into a dangerous mentality that says politicians are pathological liars. They do their best, so let’s not hold them to such ludicrous standards.

You Decide

  1. How much do you care about politicians breaking their promises?
  2. Should net migration to the UK be reduced?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes we should be less harsh on politicians.”
  2. Pick a major campaign promise from the last 10 years of British politics, and research to what extent it was fulfilled.

Some People Say...

“Politicians promise to build bridges even where there are no rivers.”

Nikita Khrushchev

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is understood that a pledge to reduce net migration to the UK to the “tens of thousands” will again be included in the Conservative manifesto. We know that migration to the UK has soared in the last 20 years, and that it has become one of the most divisive issues in politics.
What do we not know?
Whether the pledge really is achievable. If Britain comes out of the EU single market, freedom of movement rules will not apply, so the UK government should be able to exercise more control. However, there are many who insist that immigration is vital to the British economy, and that the country could not thrive without it.
What do people believe?
That many of those who will vote Tory and who voted to leave the European Union will expect May to reduce immigration.

Word Watch

332,000 in 2015
The figure for 2016 was 273,000. For much of the 1970s, net migration to the UK was actually negative, with more people leaving than entering. In the 1980s and early 1990s it was fairly constant at around 50,000, before a dramatic rise after the Labour Party came to power in 1997.
The party manifestos are expected to be published next week.
The focal point of the protests, which took place in November and December of 2010, was a series of marches in Central London. At one protest, several hundred marchers branched off to attack and occupy the Conservative Party headquarters. This behaviour was widely condemned in the media and divided the student movement over the legitimacy of such tactics.
As the Republican Party held both the Senate and the House of Representatives, Obama as a Democrat found it harder than many other presidents, who had party support in Congress, to push legislation through.

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