What was Thatcher’s legacy on immigration?
Parliament was recalled during the Easter recess to allow MPs and Peers to pay tribute to the longest serving British Prime Minister since the Second World War. There was little mention of her work on immigration in the House of Lords tributes.
However, during the tributes in the House of Commons, 2010 intake backbench Tory MPs Alok Sharma, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab, who are all second generation immigrants to the UK, expressed a collective narrative about Thatcher. The message was that she “inspired” migrant and refugee communities. Sharma added that Thatcher was “aspiration personified” and portrayed “values espoused by many immigrant communities”, while Raab expressed his admiration of her:
For many more—including refugees like my father, who came here with nothing—she nurtured the flicker of aspiration, inspiring people, regardless of their background, to believe that as a result of hard work, their dreams of prosperity and a better quality of life lay within their grasp. That message resonated not just in Britain, but around the world.
So how does Thatcher’s record on immigration stand up? The period of Thatcher’s leadership in the UK – 1979 to 1990 – were broadly years of ‘zero immigration’, with immigration levels considerably lower than they are today. Immigration levels were stable, even recording a reduction in net migration to 53,200 in 1990 which had stood at 69,670 in 1979. There were a number of reasons for this: the deep recession of the early 1980s had eroded the ‘pull factors’ of the old ‘Fordist’ manufacturing industries. The global developments that would provoke much immigration to the UK in the following decade, including the fall of the Iron Curtain, expansion of European Union free movement rights through the Maastrict Treaty, and the refugee-producing conflicts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa among others, had yet to happen.
As such, immigration policy remained largely untouched throughout the Thatcher premiership. She brought forward little legislation controlling immigration forward – aside from the British Nationality Act 1981, which continued the restrictions to Commonwealth citizen rights introduced in the Immigration Act 1971. This wasn’t a tenet of Thatcherism but a continuation of Edward Heath’s policies. Small adjustments to the immigration system (such as legislation introduced to tackle undocumented transiting passengers in the Immigration (Carriers Liability) Act 1987) were the limit of her policy activity on other aspects of immigration.
However, there seems to have been a mismatch between Thatcher’s national rhetoric and her light touch policy agenda on immigration. She often argued that the UK was too densely populated and that immigration needed to be controlled at a sustainable level, referring to immigration as a threat to national British identity, a common rhetoric she exercised with American conservatives. Thatcher reportedly displayed a determined opposition to further movement of refugees to the UK fleeing the Vietnam war of the 1970s.
Thatcher’s opposition to Ugandan Asian migration in her early days in Number 10 Downing Street was well documented in the press; prompting Enoch Powell to express his support for her when she became Prime Minister. Powell was famous for his Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 in Birmingham where he made lurid claims about immigration and the consequences of uncontrolled migration. Thatcher said the country “would be swamped by people with a different culture”. Interestingly, the very nations in the Eastern European bloc of former Soviet states she so strongly advocated for are now among the biggest contributors to net migration in the UK.
Thatcher’s legacy on immigration can also be read into her reform of the UK economy. There was arguably a paradox between her Government’s anti-immigration rhetoric and their wider policy programme of full-blown capitalism and labour deregulation, which took the British economy to a new phase of globalisation. The full development of Mrs Thatcher’s vision of the UK as a service economy, offering high rent incomes to the elite and large numbers of low paid jobs to the masses, had the effect of mobilising new types of economic migration. It also brought to the forefront all the issues of labour exploitation among many low-paid workers including many migrants - this can be at least partly explained as the consequence of Thatcherite neo-liberal policies.
The face of immigration to the UK has transformed in the years since Thatcher left Downing Street. It would be unthinkable for today’s leaders to spend a decade with such little concrete action on immigration. But today’s world, and the UK’s position within that world, is a very different one to that of the 1970s and 80s. Considerable increase in asylum-seekers and economic migrants from within the EU and beyond during the 1990s and 2000s have raised the profile of the immigration debate. New Labour’s Points Based System (PBS) now forms the basis of an increasingly complex immigration system, subject to constant tweaks and adjustments at the hands of successive policy-makers.
Overall, the diverse and dynamic increase in global mobility to the UK in recent years is surely in part a result of the Thatcherite tradition – the results of that for both migrants and host communities will be debated for a long time to come.