Boris shows himself to be more liberal than Nick on immigration

Typing that headline pained me. But it’s true, at least on the issue of an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Compare and contrast…

Here’s what London Mayor Boris Johnson said today on his LBC call-in show today:

“We should have an amnesty. We’ve got people who’ve got in here illegally. They are not engaged with the economy and being honest with the system.”

And here’s how Nick casually dumped the party’s policy three months ago:

… it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law. And so it risked undermining public confidence in the immigration system. The very public confidence that is essential to a tolerant and open Britain. That is why I am no longer convinced this specific policy should be retained in our manifesto for the next General Election.

As I wrote at the time:

… ditching the Lib Dems’ earned route to amnesty because our opponents label it ‘soft’ is weak leadership: yes, I’ve no doubt the Lib Dems took an electoral hit for putting it forward, that it helped deflate ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010. But instead of walking away from a sound policy — one being pursued by both Democrats and Republicans in the USA — we should be making the case for it, building alliances with sensible Tory and Labour politicians (they do exist).

There are at least two Tories we now know the Lib Dems could be building an alliance with: not only Boris, but also Nadhim Zahawi. Well it’s a start. I’m sure there must be Labour MPs too who recognise the absurdity of the current policy of pretending the problem of long-term illegal immigrants forced to keep on living in the shadows doesn’t exist.

I’ve heard it said by more than one senior Lib Dem that the amnesty policy cost the party half-a-million votes at the last election. Even accepting that figure’s true, there remains a simple fact: it’s the right policy. Clearly we’ve failed to explain it adequately. And there will be many people for whom it is unexplainable. But run away from the right policy because it’s unpopular? No thanks.

I remember when I nominated Boris Johnson as my CentreForum Liberal Hero for his sane words on immigration (he’d urged the Government to “allow the best and brightest to come here, contribute and thrive”) kopping some flak from some Lib Dems for doing so.

But when it comes to immigration, I’m afraid the reality is you’ll more often find Boris showing liberal leadership than Nick.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Jul '13 - 9:25pm

    I would call it more naive, rather than liberal. Although I admit, sometimes there isn’t much of a difference.

  • Kevin McNamara 2nd Jul '13 - 9:33pm

    hear, hear.

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Jul '13 - 9:47pm

    Stephen, how is it “the right policy” to reward criminals who have come here illegally? I don’t having border controls is immoral, so anyone who breaks it is rightly a criminal and should be brought to justice, just like any other criminal.

    The only exception should be the children of illegal immigrants, because they weren’t responsible for breaking any laws.

  • Just because he is liberal in certain areas does not mean he is a Liberal

    I agree with this particular policy but probably for different reasons than Boris but I don’t want to be churlish

    Now for those other policies of his…….

  • Eddie Sammon 2nd Jul '13 - 9:54pm

    I feel angered at the idea of giving amnesty to illegal immigrants, and I’m sure much of the electorate feel the same. Just because it is hard to catch a criminal does not mean you should give up. As I’ve said, exceptions should be made for the children and descendants.

    People might say “but they came here because they were poor”, well people steal from shops because they are poor, but it doesn’t mean we should make it illegal. We must have law and order.

  • Little Jackie Paper 2nd Jul '13 - 10:42pm

    I’m very sorry Mr Tall, but perhaps you can elaborate on how the amnesty is in fact the right policy? You seem to miss that bit out.

    When my (non-EU) wife went through the process some years ago we followed the system in good faith, paying the high fees, living with the uncertainty for years, presenting our file when asked and respecting the fact that we were asking the public at large to take on trust that our marriage was genuine. To my mind there are no ifs and no buts. The very suggestion of an amnesty is a slap across the face of every legal migrant in the country and a slap across the face of every UK citizen who has respected the rule of law on this matter. Quite how this idea is ‘Liberal’ in any meaningful sense of the term is utterly beyond me, it strikes me as an affront to the very notion of a rule of law.

    Have you thought that maybe, just maybe it is not a matter of explanation falling short, rather that the sceptics are right and you are the one defending the indefensible? An immigration amnesty is not, ‘soft,’ it is plain wrong. The fact that Boris and US politicians are pursuing the idea does not somehow magically change that fact. Do you really think that the, ‘best and the brightest,’ will be the ones taking advantage of an amnesty? The cynic in me wonders whether some Conservatives might be taking a corporatist view of immigration, sensing an opportunity for wage arbitrage via an amnesty. One would hope that that is not the case.

    No one is, ‘forcing,’ illegal immigrants to live outside the law nor is anyone insisting they work in the clandestine economy. This nonsense might have some vague sense of credibility if everyone with a blue passport or an overseas accent were locked up at the border – they are not. There are many legal routes into the UK used by tens of thousands each year, often at considerable personal expense. There is nothing preventing those in the UK illegally from using one of those legal routes – unless, of course they have no right at law to be here. I doubt that if I stayed in my wife’s country with no visa that the authorities or public at large would say the only thing I was doing wrong is getting caught.

    Granted, there is a debate to be had about immigration enforcement and the excessive demands of the system both financial and administrative. Granted also there is a debate to be had about how exactly we count, ‘immigrants.’ Certainly I think that university students (as distinct from graduates) can not seriously be classed as, ‘immigrants’ for the purposes of targets. None of this changes however the fact that what you are proposing is essentially telling my wife and I that we just shouldn’t have bothered with small matters like the law because residency can just be given out like coconuts at a fairground to those able to play the game.

    And this is before we get to the small matter of, ‘amnesty tourism.’

    No Mr Tall, this policy was wrong in 2010 and it is still wrong. Nick Clegg deserves credit for not being dogmatic. It is not wrong because this party’ s political opponents call it, ‘soft.’ it is not wrong because it likely costs votes and it is not wrong because there are possibly some good eggs who are here illegally. It is wrong because it is an affront to the many people, both from the UK and other countries, who respect the law and treat their residency as a serious matter. Quite frankly I am staggered that you are so blasé about the implications of amnesty.

  • Mark Seaman 2nd Jul '13 - 11:17pm

    The only reason Boris Johnson favors such an amnesty is so that he and his rich chums can enjoy the supply of extra cheap labour, whilst the majority of people suffer lower wages as a result. Mass immigration has been used to undermine decent wages and conditions in other countries, time to wake up to the fact that it is happening here. There is nothing ‘Liberal’ about such a policy, quite the contrary.

  • The fact that 150 thousand people live undocumented shows how greedy we have become as a people. If Franklin Lincoln always listened to the public demand slavery could have existed much longer. We need politicians with a backbone to stand for right principals even if the principals are unpopular. Someone who lives in England undocumented for more than ten years must be really desperate.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Jul '13 - 8:27am

    We also need to get to grips on housing.

    I personally would not block anyone who came here to input into society in a positive way. But we can’t build enough housing now.

  • jenny barnes 3rd Jul '13 - 8:50am

    Clearly we can build enough housing. “We” just politically choose not to. Why? Well, it could have something to do with who owns most of the housing, and who those people mostly vote for, and what would happen if we increased the supply of housing. (Economics 101…increase supply, price drops, ceteris paribus). So if you’re a Tory government, you’ll be against building much housing, because it would make your voters poorer, even if it would be good for the country as a whole.

    On the topic – Is the immigration amnesty actually party policy as passed by Conference? If so, here we have another example of the parliamentary bit of the party ignoring the democratic structure that we thought we had. Quel suprise.

  • For consistency and to avoid being accused of double standards, I assume the LibDems will campaign to extend this amnesty to other groups involved in illegal activity, such as child abusers…

    I thought not…

  • Neither Nick Clegg nor his fellow-travellers on this issue confront the fact that the illegal immigrants, particularly in London, are so well “integrated” that the Home Office appears to have little appetite for the practicalities of their removal. A one-off amnesty, the sooner the better, followed by adequately resourced border policing (paid for by the taxes of the now legal immigrants?) is the only way out of this bind. The pity is it will still be an issue come 2015. It should have been done and dusted by now.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Jul '13 - 11:19am


    There are many crimes that the police or the CPS decide not to pursue because it’s “not in the public interest”. The principle of an amnesty is well-established because quite frequently, the police announce that anyone who hands in an illegally-held weapon won’t be prosecuted for its possession (though of course they would be prosecuted if it turned out that weapon had been used with their knowledge in a crime). This amnesty brings in lots of weapons which otherwise would have been retained and might have been used to kill someone – not necessarily by the person who originally held them, but after they’d been stolen, traded, dumped or lost in a scuffle.

    I take your point about rewarding illegal behaviour. For that reason I’d say that any amnesty should, unlike the weapons amnesty, be a once-off.

    Your analogy with people who steal because they’re poor is not a close one, because theft always has a victim. Illegal immigrants may or may not be doing more harm than good. A lot of them are doing legal jobs no-one else would do. Whether rooting this out would be on balance a good thing or a bad is arguable. The point about an amnesty is that numbers of people who, having offended once, don’t want to offend again are currently kept in a shadow-world where even if they start earning enough, they can’t pay taxes, where abusive employment practices go unpunished, where they may be blackmailed into further illegal acts and where they don’t inform on the much more serious criminals who organised their transit here, all because they themselves would be deported.

    NIck has a fair point about not undermining a fair immigration policy, but it is at least arguable that a once-off amnesty would reduce criminality and expose the criminals at the root of illegal immigration.

  • The fact is legal immigration isn’t that popular , let alone amnesties illegal immigration., To implement policies you have to gain votes . Personally, I suspect that even if the case for an amnesty was put forward in a rational way people would still not vote for it, not evein liberal progressive countries.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '13 - 7:28pm

    Simon, I don’t believe in gun amnesty’s either. You say illegal immigration doesn’t always have a victim, but it does because if we had no border controls there would be huge problems, so we must keep firm on it. It is likely that anyone who wants to get into the country who could really contribute would have got a job first and come in legitimately.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Jul '13 - 10:31pm

    @Eddie Sammon: Theft always has a victim because every act of theft is taking property from specific person; also it is pretty universally agreed that taking someone else’s property without their permission is wrong. There is no equivalent specific moral wrong committed by illegal immigration. Whether strong border controls are a good thing is a matter of opinion. This is shown by your vague and circular reasoning that ” we had no border controls there would be huge problems, so we must keep firm on it” , But even if we accept that they are good, it is not possible to say that a specific act of illegal immigration had any specific bad effect on life in this country as a result of breaching border controls. Therefore you cannot say that illegal immigration always has a victim, whereas you can always say that theft does have one: a specific individual whose property was taken without their permission.

    Your second assertion (that “anyone who could really contribute would have got a job first and come in legitimately”) assumes that there is an easy path for people who can contribute to come in legitimately. However, our immigration law puts so many hurdles in the way of those who want to come in legitimately that in many cases the illegitimate path is much more straightforward.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Jul '13 - 11:03pm

    OK Alex, I’m just against all amnesty’s unless I think the law is immoral and an amnesty is the best we can hope for. However I don’t think this applies to adults who have come over illegally.

  • @Alex:
    The evidence from the legacy New Labour left shows that we need border controls that are enforced, along with better accounting and more detailed record keeping on immigration and emigration. The challenges we have is two fold, firstly migration within the EU/EEA for which we effectively have open borders and migration outside the EU/EEA which we can control.

    Hence the whole question about our immigration laws and illegal immigration is really about non-EU/EEA immigration and specifically immigrants from particular less developed/affluent regions. Whilst I’m sure that the media can find a Nobel prize winner living illegally in the UK, I’m also sure that they would be an exception to the many illegal’s; since “the best and brightest” (which as Boris pointed out are the one’s we actually want) would know that if they really wanted to contribute they would need to enter their intended country of residence legitimately.

    Illegal immigration does have victims, only generally it isn’t so obvious as with theft. We only need to look at the mass movement of people across borders, arising from people try to escape conflict, to see that the communities that have been force to host these people suffer and need aid just as much as those displaced. Where you are probably getting confused, is that it seems some communities will provide support to illegal immigrations, because of family, tribal or other relationship that extends back to their ethnic homelands, and hence why, if the estimates are to be believed, they have largely disappeared. I suspect an amnesty would lift the lid on the problem and suddenly we would start seeing victims; just as the revelations about Jimmy Saville lifted the lid on whole groups of victims that we were unaware of…

  • i agree with Nick. The policy is much more poyular with the vast majority who do not see why cheats should prosper by drawing on unearned public services than it is unpopular with those few same cheats.

    I refuse to be ‘ashamed’ by anything Boris may think or say.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Jul '13 - 2:44pm

    @Roland: First of all, it is absurd and offensive to compare illegal immigration with paedophilia. As explained, immigration (whether legal or illegal) has both positive and negative effects on society. The question is where to strike the balance. The effects of paedophilia on society are 100% negative, and on individual victims much worse than the direct effects of illegal immigration can be on anybody.
    The positive effects of immigration are mainly the potential economic benefits of an increased labour force (obviously, this depends on work being available); nothing to do with whether any community provides support for them.
    Communities in this country that host immigrants suffer as much as the immigrants themselves who may have been fleeing persecution and destution? Really?

    You are also conflating the two separate issues of (i) how to make it easy for highly skilled non-UK people (“best and brightest”) to come here and work legally, and (ii) what to do about people who are already here who may not be legal. Who said advocates of immigrant amnesties were talking mainly about highly skilled or noteworthy people? Only you and Eddie Sammon seem to think this. Why should someone be a Nobel prizewinner or such to make a useful contribution to the economy?

    if they really wanted to contribute they would need to enter their intended country of residence legitimately

    And again, like Eddie Sammon, you assume that they had a choice in the matter (whether to stay in their home countries or legitimately enter another country). You ignore that, for example, they might not see any future for themselves in their home countries and yet might not have any option of entering another country legitimately; they might have been trafficked in; they might be fleeing conflict (as you mention) or be asylum seekers. These do not necessarily excuse their presence in this country, but the circumstances of their arrival here does not mean that they would not be able to contribute to the economy if given a chance to do so.

  • @Alex
    “it is absurd and offensive to compare illegal immigration with paedophilia.”
    No they are both illegal; albeit to different degree’s.
    Prior to the revelations about Jimmy Saville, the majority of the public would of trusted him (and as has subsequently come out also other media personalities) around teenage girls, because ‘we’ turned a blind eye and did not investigate. So if we were to offer an amnesty on crimes/criminal investigation, these crimes would most probably have gone undiscovered or not investigated as it wouldn’t of been a good use of Police time.
    Your position, that I was responding to, was that there were no victims of illegal immigrants or that they did no moral wrong – I was observing that we don’t really know until we lift the lid on just what has been going on (and even then we will most probably never really know) – for example some of the illegals may be men who are here because of arranged marriages to teenage girls, or to incite terrorism etc. etc. (I leave it to the reader, as these are pure speculation).

    “The positive effects of immigration are mainly the potential economic benefits of an increased labour force”
    I didn’t question the positive effects of legal and managed migration, but at the present time an increased labour force is probably one of the last things we actually need.

    “Communities in this country that host immigrants suffer as much as the immigrants themselves who may have been fleeing persecution and destution? ”
    Likewise I did not say this and in your original comment you made no reference to the circumstances that caused a person to become an illegal immigrant, only commenting on what they did once here. The example I used to make my point that illegal immigration isn’t benign, indicated that the communities that provide sanctuary often also need our aid – you can’t grow much food on fields occupied by refugees. In the UK do we know if families are going without because they are also supporting an illegal immigrant?

    “You are also conflating the two separate issues of (i) how to make it easy for highly skilled non-UK people (“best and brightest”) to come here and work legally, and (ii) what to do about people who are already here who may not be legal.”
    No I’ve not made any statement about making it easy for highly skilled people to come here, I merely said that they would tend to choose to use legal routes of entry. I also have not made any comment on what to do with people already here, other than to say, like Nick, that the amnesty as currently proposed (ie. granting a permanent right of residency) is not the way forward.

    “Who said advocates of immigrant amnesties were talking mainly about highly skilled or noteworthy people?”
    I didn’t say this, in fact if there were significant numbers of highly skilled or noteworthy people here illegally, much would be made of it, which because there isn’t is in itself is telling.

    Just for the record, I do make a distinction between those who are here ‘illegally’ and openly and pro-actively make their case for asylum and those who climb off the back of a lorry and disappear into the night. I take it from your posturing that you would treat these two groups the same?

    “Why should someone be a Nobel prizewinner or such to make a useful contribution to the economy?”
    Because as Eddie said “It is likely that anyone who wants to get into the country who could really contribute would have got a job first and come in legitimately.” Yes, identifying the “best and brightest” will be tricky; I’m sure Alan Sugar might have failed the Boris test before he founded Amstrad… similarly looking back we can see the government called it right when it allowed circa 27,000 Ugandan Indians into Britain in 1972 without giving attention to their individual abilities. I used a Nobel prize winner as an example of an exception that the media and pro-amnesty advocates would like to hold up to imply that the majority of the illegal immigrants are of such calibre; when the truth is most likely to be vastly different. Do we really need immigrants to do the jobs that we don’t want to do? that to me has racist undertones.

    “if they really wanted to contribute they would need to enter their intended country of residence legitimately”
    Please quote correctly – I prefixed this with the words “would know” and hence if faced as you suggest with having to enter a country as a refugee or asylum seeker, would proactively engage with the immigration process ie. be highly visible to the authorities.

    “You ignore … they might … and yet might … they might … they might.”
    Yes I have ignored the reasons for them being here or how they got here, because as you say “These do not necessarily excuse their presence in this country” and hence do not change the argument for or against an amnesty. They only have effect on what actions we can and should take.

    Finally, thanks for giving me a reason to review what I originally said and attempt to clarify it. What is obvious, we have several problems with illegal immigrants: firstly those who have disappeared and have made little or no attempt to formalise their residency (I include marriages of convenience and such like in this category), secondly those who are engaging with our authorities to try and legitimise their presence here and who’s case has some plausibility. Whilst an amnesty of some form may be appropriate for those who are trying to legitimise their presence, I suggest, like Nick and Little Jackie Paper, it is an inappropriate reward for those who have thumbed their finger at our authorities.

  • Alex Macfie 4th Jul '13 - 11:49pm

    @Roland: No, I repeat, you CANNOT compare illegal immigration with paedophilia. Jimmy Savile was a malicious individual (as paedophiles are generally) who was able to get away with his activities because he was very clever at hiding them. You cannot say that illegal immigrants, as a class, are similarly malicious people who are nefariously hiding their criminal activity. Some are, but illegal immigrants are a diverse group with wildly different motives for coming and staying herer. There is simply no comparison, and therefore I am not prepared to discuss that any more.
    And I did NOT say that illegal immigrants have “no victims”. How DARE you deliberately misinterpret my position that way?! My point is that while things like theft or child abuse have purely evil motivations, and all instances of such activities have victims, illegal immigration is not in itself evil, and does not *necessarily* have a victim. Again, the comparison is flawed on that basic level.
    It was you and that other guy who introduced the idea of Nobel preizewinners as such. You do NOT have to be an eminent or highly skilled person to be a net contributor to the economy; practically anyone who works is one. So if one considers an amnesty a sensible idea, it really doesn’t matter what sort of job the beneficiaries of this would be able to do the point is that they would be able to work. And while it is desirable that people make sure they enter a country legally to use their skills there, in the real world (as opposed to your idealised world in which everyone is perfectly rational and things always work as intended) this doesn’t always happen, and that is really the point of the proposal.

    I have never sought to downplay the problems that result from illegal immigration and certain illegal immigrants. My point is that it is not an unmitigated evil like the other things you try to compare it to, and that makes your comparisons inappropriate. But I doubt I shall change your mind on that, any more than you can debate this subject with me on what I actually think, rather than what you suppose or want to pretend my views are. As far as I’m concerned this discussion is over. Good night.

  • @Alex, You still haven’t got it, I am not comparing the actual crime, I’m comparing our ie. societies, awareness of their activities – which is different.

    I chose the evocative example because it is current and has some similarities as both groups desire to keep their existence out of sight. Also if we offer an unconditional amnesty to one group, there will be calls to offer similar amnesties for other crimes which can take us down the road of unintended consequences of giving amnesties to undesirable people …

    Remember we have no real data on the actual number of illegal immigrants in the country, and those here illegally who have ‘disappeared’ don’t walk around advertising the fact., so the only sensible amnesty we can and should offered is like the various gun and knife amnesty’s, namely: here is a chance to register your presence in the country without being questioned and hence gain assistance to either leave or have you case looked at (ie. restart you residency application), otherwise if you do not come forward, when discovered you will be deported.

    Yes, whilst “it really doesn’t matter what sort of job the beneficiaries of this would be able to do the point is that they would be able to work. “, we do have 2.5 million legal residents unemployed and are increasing the number of years people need to work before retiring, so we have more than enough potential applicants for most jobs. So in the real world I don’t see any one and specifically those in their 20’s and 30’s, being particularly keen on this idea.

    Actually we also need to remember the purpose of the proposed amnesty, is to cover up the total failure of successive governments to discharge their responsibility to properly police our borders and manage the migration of people in and out of the country.

  • Robert Wootton 5th Jul '13 - 11:20am

    For immigrants to be legal, make it a requirement for them to have a visa from the British Embassy in their home country giving permission to travel here. Convicted criminals would not get the visa.
    Then issue work permits that show the minimum hourly wage rate to the immigrants. Another rule thatshould be made is that there is no entitlement to benefits until they have paid income tax for five years. This rule should be EU wide.
    Existing illegal immigrants already in this country should be issued with a work permit. This would loosen the grip of criminal people traffickers on their victims. Especially if the amnesty and work permit policy was widely publicised.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Martin Bennett
    Entering a coalition is inherently perilous for us. In 2010 our vote was divided between convinced Lib Dems, anti-Labour voters, anti-Tory voters and protest vo...
  • Alex Macfie
    Ian Patterson: We were never even in contention in most of the Blue Wall seats we are now targeting. Previously safe Tory seats are now ultra-marginal, and that...
  • Nonconformistradical
    @Mohammed Amin Believe it or not some local objections might actually be valid. Such as a proposal to build in an area which might increase flood risk. Do yo...
  • Mohammed Amin
    I think the journalist John Rentoul deserves a trademark on QTWTAIN (questions to which the answer is no.) I have no objection to self-build for those with t...
  • Mick Taylor
    Nonconformistradical. In my building days all that was needed was for the electricity board to test the system before they connected it. In fact, the inspector ...