The EU referendum and Britain’s broken immigration politics
The decision in 2004 by Tony Blair’s New Labour government to allow unfettered access to the UK for citizens of the 8 central and east European EU newcomers has had monumentally important implications. Most other member states imposed transitional restrictions of up to 7 years. If Britain had done so too then it’s probably safe to say that the scale of movement to Britain would have been tiny in comparison with actual numbers and Britain would still be in the EU.
If about one thing, the 2016 referendum was about immigration, but British immigration politics are broken. While strained at times, it once was that a two party Con-Lab consensus established in the 1960s removed the issue from wider public debate. This consensus has long since been stretched way beyond breaking point fuelled not least by the steep growth in migration from other EU members after 2004.
Propping up this political consensus were powerful pro-labour migration voices. The well-organised beneficiaries of increased immigration such as business interests were not shy to express their view that a liberal approach to labour migration was a good thing. EU free movement sustained a flexible, liberalised UK labour market. These pro-migration voices might have been influential but there was growing public opposition to increased immigration. While voices from the business community will be to the fore arguing for the centrality of the EU single market to any future vision of Brexit, such views run counter to a more hostile public mood revealed by the referendum campaign and vote.
While once not seen as a topic for polite discussion, immigration has become a near obsessive focus for public debate. A famous 2005 general election Conservative campaign poster made what was seen at the time as the contentious contention that: ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’. The biter was bitten as public scepticism about immigration was mainlined into British politics via UKIP with hugely important effects on both Conservative and, even more importantly, Labour support. Once derided by Cameron as cranks, fruitcakes and closet racists, UKIP capitalised on opposition to ‘uncontrolled immigration’.
Brexit is a powerfully negative verdict on David Cameron government’s immigration policy. While some may see Cameron’s January 2013 speech at the London offices of Bloomberg calling for a referendum as a defining moment, perhaps more damaging was his decision 3 years earlier to ‘cap’ net in the tens – rather than hundreds – of thousands. At no point in the subsequent 6 years did the government get anywhere near this target. Four weeks before the referendum vote, the Office for National Statistics presented a gift to the Leave campaign when announcing that 630,000 people moved to the UK in 2015 of which 270,000 came form other EU member states. Net migration in 2015 was 333,000.
Cameron’s government had specified a target that it couldn’t attain, not least because of EU free movement. Worse still, every 6 months when the immigration statistics were published the public was reminded of this failure. Ex-Cameron advisor Steve Hilton said in the run-up the referendum vote that Cameron was told that the target was unattainable while Britain was in the EU. For Leave, it was the gift that kept on giving. Cameron’s once vaunted re-negotiation of February 2016 with its limits on access to welfare benefits for EU migrants was an utter campaign irrelevance.
The future of Britain outside the EU will necessarily be defined by attempts to fix these broken immigration politics. Yet, the Brexiteers themselves are riven by a basic divide between liberal and nationalist strands with very different world views shaping their outlooks on immigration.
Liberal Brexit centres on a continued commitment in some as yet unspecified form to free movement of goods, services, capital and, dare to say it, people. On June 27th, Boris Johnson articulated his cake approach to public policy – pro having it and pro eating it – when he articulated an open and engaged vision of Britain’s future relations with the EU centred on single market access but unencumbered by EU laws and with an Australian-style points system for new immigrants. A vision swiftly dismissed as a pipedream by EU diplomats.
Free movement of people is anathema to Brexit’s nationalist wing with Nigel Farage as its champion. For nationalists, ‘uncontrolled immigration’ must be halted. In March 2015, Farage suggested that he’d prefer to see net migration of around 30,000 people a year.
Immigration is a major faultline dividing liberal and nationalist versions of Brexit. The tortuous negotiations of the route to exit will be about details. Liberal Brexiteers favour the economic benefits of European integration without the burden of EU laws. Maintaining a commitment to free movement is likely to enrage the nationalist wing of the Brexit campaign keen to show any backsliding as a further sell out by the political elite.
Raising expectations about immigration control and then carrying on regardless with free movement could not only fail to repair the broken politics of immigration but further widen the gap between the people and their political leaders.
This blog first appeared on the EU Referendum Analysis website.