This weekend the president of Bulgaria, in the midst of an increasingly heated debate about the imminent lifting of restrictions on migration from his country to the UK, said: "Politicians should be ready to say the inconvenient truth." They should endure short-term unpopularity, Rosen Plevneliev suggests, "preserve our values" and "keep the history of our proud tolerant nations as they are". Given that his words were aimed at a Conservative party now zooming into pre-election mode under the supervision of Lynton Crosby, they read like subtle satire.
And on the same theme, Nick Clegg asked: "What would happen if tonight every European living in the UK boarded a ship or plane and went home? Are we really that keen to see the back of German lawyers, Dutch accountants, or Finnish engineers?" Full marks for his usual high-mindedness, but the contributions made by such professionals are only a fraction of the issue: the truth is that the British economy would be in a much more parlous state if it lost the low-paid Poles cleaning hotels, the Czechs serving cappuccinos, and the Latvians and Lithuanians working as security guards.
What a mess all this is. Next week, on 1 January, seven years after their countries formally joined the European Union, restrictions will be lifted on the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who can live and work in the UK. Exactly how many will come here is inevitably unclear, and clouded by the hysterical claims made by parts of the rightwing press, and the UK Independence party – one of whose leaflets in this year's Eastleigh byelection stated that "the EU will allow 29 million Bulgarians and Romanians to come to the UK". That number was derived by simply adding together the two countries' populations.
The Tories are clearly panicked. Consequently, as of last week, the Conservative position on EU enlargement (long seen by the Tories as the best bulwark against political union) began to shift. David Cameron is now seemingly pledged to veto the accession of such countries as Serbia and Albania, unless there are new restrictions on the free movement of labour. Conservative high-ups are said to be considering an annual cap of 75,000 migrants from the EU – a move that, as Vince Cable pointed outon Sunday, would probably be "illegal and impossible to implement", and has much more to do with moronic electioneering than serious politics.
Meanwhile, the liberal left is reprising its mantra: migration is good for us, new migrants from the EU pay about a third more in taxes than they cost in public services and benefits, Britain has a long tradition of tolerance and openness, etc. The abiding impression is of the kind of people who write headlines for the Daily Express facing off against people who often seem to speak only in platitudes and dry statistics, which only serves to obscure the issues even more.
Yet something is unavoidably up. According to YouGov, in 2005 Britons supported "the right of people in EU countries to live and work wherever they want" by a ratio of two to one. Today, we oppose free movement by 49% to 38%. One recent poll by ComRes – admittedly commissioned by an anti-EU outfit called Get Britain Out – found that 79% of people opposed the lifting of the restrictions on new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania. All this cannot solely be traced to the screams of rightwing papers and the rise of Ukip's Nigel Farage, let alone some metro-left fantasy that outside the M25 simple bigotry runs rampant.
The point is, millions of people will always be uneasy about large-scale change. Not because they are racist, or any more prejudiced than anyone else – but because human beings like a measure of certainty and stability. Further, it barely needs pointing out that immigration tends to impact places where certainty and stability are thin on the ground. If you pinball between part-time work and jobseeker's allowance and feel about two pay cheques away from destitution, the idea that your meagre chunk of the rock may be about to shrink yet further will not go down well. Statistics, unfortunately, have precious little to do with this: there may be an argument that, viewed from a macro level, immigration does not drag down wages, but it seems to have an appreciable effect towards the bottom of the labour market – and besides, if you live in a constant state of anxiety, even the suggestion that it might will be enough.
Millions of people understand all this, as a matter of day-to-day experience. In Peterborough, employment agencies are stuffed with young eastern European men being packed off to do temporary work, and locals swear blind their sons and daughters either do not get a look-in or are caught in a grim race to the bottom. In Boston, Lincolnshire, a byword for tensions around immigration, people say that local market gardening businesses seized on newly arrived people who were prepared to live and work in the most abject of circumstances, and thereby cut the town in two.
Throw in former council houses now pulled into the most disreputable end of the buy-to-let market (as has happened in the areas of Sheffield that have attracted newly arrived Roma people), and you have even bigger problems.
And none of these tensions have anything to do with "health tourism", the non-problem of EU migrants claiming benefits, or any of the other issues being played up by the Tories: instead they are reducible to the ideas embedded by the Conservatives in the 80s and 90s, largely sustained during the Blair and Brown years, and now being taken to new extremes by Cameron et al – surely the greatest dishonesty of all.
As an alternative to the politics of deception and displacement activity, we might accept that our membership of the EU brings far more benefits than costs, but understand that in the absence of dependable labour standards, housing and other essentials, it could well fall into disrepute. A half-repentant Labour party may be gingerly moving towards this position; the Tories remain much where they ever were; and the Liberal Democrats, long ignorant of anything to do with the nitty-gritty of the economy, do not seem to have a position one way or the other.
To go back to Plevneliev, politicians should indeed be mindful of their countries' "tolerant" histories, and occasionally state inconvenient truths. But they are also going to have to look at one of the most awkward facts of all: that if the free movement of people has become synonymous with insecurity and anxiety, it should focus attention not on borders policy, but on the basics of our economy.
John Harris is a journalist and author, who writes regularly for the Guardian about a range of subjects built around politics, popular culture and music.