Facts don’t seem to be all that important. If you want to express an opinion on immigration, it appears what matters is who can shout the loudest, and who is best at riding the latest populist wave. Many people say that immigration is the most important issue concerning the UK today. How about this for a contrary view? It may be more accurate to say the way in which the topic of immigration is portrayed in the press poses the single biggest threat to the UK today.

Let us look at some of the arguments often bandied about. First off, the UK is swamped by immigrants. The OECD has taken look at data on immigration flow for 2011 (or for the latest year for which data is available) for 24 of the largest OECD countries. The country with the largest inflow of immigrants was Switzerland, followed by Norway, then New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands, and then the UK. In fact, migration inflows into the UK were less than the OECD average.

Now look at the migrant population, which is to say the percentage of population for each country who were foreign born. In the case of Luxembourg, the number stands at around 40 per cent. The OECD average is around 13.1 per cent; it is 12 per cent for the UK. In fact across 32 OECD countries, 15 have a higher proportion of their population who are foreign born, while 16 have a lower proportion. In other words, the UK is below the mean average and just above the median average.

What many people forget when talking about immigration is the other side of the coin: emigration. Setting aside the fact that immigration into the UK is below the OECD average, what many overlook is that the UK also sees a high level of emigration. According to the ONS, “500,000 people immigrated to the UK in the year ending September 2012, which is significantly lower than the 581,000 who migrated the previous year…. 347,000 emigrants left the UK in the year ending September 2012, similar to the estimate of 339,000 in the year to September 2011.”

So why are people entering the UK? There are lots of reasons, of course. But according to the ONS, “Study remains the most common reason for migrating to the UK.” But if people enter the UK to study, this is unambiguously a good thing. Foreign students bring money into the UK. That this number is so high is testimony to the strength of our universities. This is to be applauded. But, according to the ONS, “In the year to March 2013, there were 206,814 visas issued for the purpose of study (excluding student visitors), a fall of 9 per cent compared with the previous 12 months.” This is surely disastrous news, but such is the attitude towards immigration in the popular press that this worrying trend is barely mentioned.

What about the drain on public finances? OECD data suggests immigration made a 0.46 per cent fiscal contribution to the UK in the most recent year for which data is available.

What about the argument that immigrants take our benefits? Take for example data on Polish Immigrants. It turns out that around 7,000 Poles receive job seekers’ allowance, when there are in the region of 500,000 Poles in the UK. Does that strike you as a high number?

According to the Department of Work and Pensions, “As at February 2011, 16.6 per cent of working age UK nationals were claiming a DWP working age benefit compared to 6.6 per cent of working age non-UK nationals.”

Then there is the rather old argument that immigrants take up hospital beds; that the NHS cannot cope. Well does this argument lack joined up thinking or what? Is it not the case that immigrants are an important source of labour for the NHS?

The truth is the UK has always been a country of immigrants. From the Anglo Saxons, to the Vikings, to refugees fleeing from the French revolution. Many of our kings and queens were immigrants too. Richard the Lionheart couldn’t speak English. King George I and II were German through and through. Prince Philip is Greek; Prince Albert was German.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the son of a Frenchman. The man who did more than anyone to define British classical music, Handel, was an immigrant. And coming up to date, perhaps the most important British innovation of the last decades was the discovery of graphene, by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester. Both men were Russian born.

In the world of sport, where would British success have been in the last Olympics if it had not been for Jessica Ennis, whose father was a Jamaican born immigrant, and Mo Farah of Somalian birth?

Immigration is not always a good thing. The UK is small country and its capacity for accepting many more people is limited.

On the other hand, the UK, like much of Europe, faces a major demographic shock, as its indigenous population ages. Immigration may be all that stands between the UK experiencing a Japanese style lost two decades.

The real issue here, however, is that we rarely hear the pro-immigration arguments. Instead we send a van around East London, telling immigrants to go home. This is just plain nasty, not to mention utterly bizarre.

Many of the tabloid newspapers have become mouthpieces for the anti-immigration lobby.

David Cameron is courting the anti-immigration lobby, trying to score cheap points by saying: “We hate immigrants more than Labour.”

Our leaders are failing us. Mr Cameron is an intelligent and decent man, who is letting opinion polls dictate policy over his true beliefs. Tony Blair made the same error. At least that was one crime that we could never have accused Mrs Thatcher of committing.

Right now, our leaders should be leading, correcting myths, and promoting an objective discussion of this incredibly important topic. Instead they ride the surf created by an increasingly hysterical media, and it is very, very dangerous.

For more see:

A champion of the liberal, open international system is redefining itself as a resentful victim

Nationality at point of National Insurance number registration of DWP benefit claimants: February 2011 working age benefits

Migration picking up but rising unemployment hurting immigrants

Migration Statistics Quarterly Report, May 2013

© Investment & Business News 2013