London's role as a magnet for immigration busted wide open the stale 1990s clichés about multiculturalism: it's a question of genuine diversity now, not just tacking a few Afro-Caribbean and Bengali events on to a white British mainstream. It's one of the reasons Paris now tends to look parochial to us.
So why is it that ministers have been so very bad at communicating this? I wonder because I wrote the landmark speech given by then immigration minister Barbara Roche in September 2000, calling for a loosening of controls. It marked a major shift from the policy of previous governments: from 1971 onwards, only foreigners joining relatives already in the UK had been permitted to settle here.
That speech was based largely on a report by the Performance and Innovation Unit, Tony Blair's Cabinet Office think-tank.
The PIU's reports were legendarily tedious within Whitehall but their big immigration report was surrounded by an unusual air of both anticipation and secrecy.
Drafts were handed out in summer 2000 only with extreme reluctance: there was a paranoia about it reaching the media.
Eventually published in January 2001, the innocuously labelled "RDS Occasional Paper no. 67", "Migration: an economic and social analysis" focused heavily on the labour market case.
But the earlier drafts I saw also included a driving political purpose: that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural.
I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended - even if this wasn't its main purpose - to rub the Right's nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date. That seemed to me to be a manoeuvre too far.
Ministers were very nervous about the whole thing. For despite Roche's keenness to make her big speech and to be upfront, there was a reluctance elsewhere in government to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour's core white working-class vote.
This shone through even in the published report: the "social outcomes" it talks about are solely those for immigrants.
And this first-term immigration policy got no mention among the platitudes on the subject in Labour's 1997 manifesto, headed Faster, Firmer, Fairer.
The results were dramatic. In 1995, 55,000 foreigners were granted the right to settle in the UK. By 2005 that had risen to 179,000; last year, with immigration falling thanks to the recession, it was 148,000.
In addition, hundreds of thousands of migrants have come from the new EU member states since 2004, most requiring neither visas nor permission to work or settle. The UK welcomed an estimated net 1.5 million immigrants in the decade to 2008.
Part by accident, part by design, the Government had created its longed-for immigration boom. Read more
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Sunday, 1 November 2009