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The Brexiteers had one job
'Taking back control' turned out to mean runaway levels of immigration
British people famously don’t like bluntness. For a business lunch it was once considered impolite to raise the actual subject of the meeting until pudding or coffee was served, a maddening level of indirectness for many overseas visitors. Similarly, our language naturally veers towards euphemism as a way to avoid hurt feelings and, also, to suggest refinement and class. So it is with our political debate, which is often voiced indirectly — sometimes with unintended consequences that can be ‘challenging’.
Almost exactly six years ago, just a few weeks before the June 23 referendum day, Boris Johnson spoke at a pro-Brexit party held at the top of Millbank Tower in Westminster. In front of a couple of hundred guests, he enthused how London had risen from the ashes of post-war sloth, becoming a new world centre of finance. He praised the City’s resurrection in the age of global capitalism, the centre of a diverse and liberal metropolis that attracts talent from around the world.
Freed from Brussels’s grasp, we would have more of this, London unrestrained as a world leader, a global city. I was at the party, by now already doubtful about the wisdom of Brexit, which seemed to hinge on an overly simplistic view of how a complex world worked, and I was already convinced it would make us poorer; and I remember thinking that Boris’s vision is the exact opposite of what many Leavers hope for, including myself.
Johnson and his ilk dreamed of accelerated globalisation; a large proportion of Brexit voters, if not the majority, wanted to put the brakes on globalisation, not hit the accelerator. In particular, they objected to one aspect of globalisation that Johnson has always been enthusiastic about: immigration. I wondered if Brexit might lead to great bitterness and disappointment, a promise of all things to all men. It was probably just as well, I consoled myself, that it looked like we wouldn’t win.
It is perhaps only now that this disappointment is finally being realised. ‘I can’t think of one Brexit promise that has been kept, novelist Tony Parsons tweeted recently. ‘Not one. Slashing taxes? No. Reducing energy bills? No. Taking back control of borders? No. Making a bonfire of EU regulations? No. This Government has broken every big bold Brexit promise. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?’
You can’t feel cheated if you never had any faith to start with, and being a very early Bregretter, I’m not at all surprised by any bad news. Borders delays? To be expected. The highest taxes since the 1950s? Yes, honey. Money isn’t everything, of course, but it is a lot of things, especially when you’re short of it.
Britain is much poorer because of Brexit, as individuals we’ve lost the many benefits of being in a bloc with our neighbours, the whole thing has proved quite traumatic, and — this is the really funny bit — immigration is now running at near-record levels. This despite the whole thing really being about immigration to start with, not ‘global Britain’ or ‘London as a financial powerhouse’ — it’s just, being British, we weren’t direct about it.
Immigration was something neither the Remain campaign nor the official Leave leadership emphasised too strongly during the referendum; Remain did not want to highlight the link between Europe and an unpopular fact of life, while many leading Tories were keen to show that the British public didn’t mind immigration, they just wanted ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’. God forbid it might be motivated by racism; indeed, some even suggested that maybe Remainers were the real racists because the EU is so white.
Leave won, now we have control, and we see the results— almost record numbers of new arrivals, in particular from outside the EU. This includes ‘239,987 work-related visas granted, 25 per cent higher than in 2019,’ 90% of which were non-EU. The number of students also rose hugely, up to 416,000 a year, an increase of more than half the 2019 figure, many of whom will of course stay after their studies end. The Tories’ points-based system has opened up half of all UK jobs to overseas workers, with lower salary and skill thresholds. This is something the British Government itself advertises in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
Whereas in the days before Brexit, the biggest block of migration came from eastern Europe, now we have returned to the days of the Blair years: the number of visas to Pakistani nationals has increased 255% since 2019, to Nigerians 415%, and Indians by 164%. As of last year, ‘Pakistan was the most common country of birth for both non-UK born mothers and fathers for the first time since 2009.’
Economist Jonathan Portes says the system is ‘(broadly) working’. But Boris Johnson has now promised further relaxation of migration from India (population: 1.3 billion) and says that Britain is short of ‘hundreds of thousands of workers’.
Just before Christmas the Government also announced plans to further relax immigration rules for care workers — an already very badly-paid job, and a move condemned by Labour, although they are not exactly in a position to start throwing stones on this one.
Meanwhile, forced returns of illegal migrants are barely half of what they were a decade ago, and crossings in the Channel — rather unsurprisingly — have reached 25,000 a year, a ten-fold increase since 2019.
So while we’ve made ourselves far poorer by leaving the EU, we’ve not only not tackled the core issue behind the referendum, but actually accelerated it.
To appreciate how bizarre this is, we need to go back to the Tony Blair premiership, without which Brexit wouldn’t have happened. Blair’s immigration policy was a profound and revolutionary change. The country had, historically, very little in the way of inwards migration, and even that of the post-war period was dwarfed by what followed from 1997. It was the most transformative event in modern British history and, for better or worse, will be of vastly more significance than Brexit. The main difference is that, unlike with leaving the EU, no one was asked first.
With Labour increasingly representing what in America is called the coalition of the ascendent — graduates, urban singletons and minorities — the older base began to drift. A few people were angry enough to break entirely with social norms and vote for the overtly Nazi-sympathising and downright weird BNP, but far more went to a semi-socially acceptable voice of dissent, Nigel Farage’s Ukip.
The United Kingdom Independence Party had begun life as a Thatcherite cargo cult, and was explicitly libertarian, rallying against high taxes and new lifestyle prohibitions such as the smoking ban. But as parties go where the voters are, so Ukip came to occupy a huge gap in the market, of people alarmed by high levels of immigration and the attendant growth of multiculturalism as a practice and reality.
Something of a myth has since grown that Ukip voters were protesting eastern European immigration, which was a direct product of the EU’s free movement rules, but the party’s huge jump in support took place before A8 migrants began arriving in large numbers. The overwhelming majority of Blair-era migration came from outside Europe, including large numbers who were able to take advantage of their relaxation of family migration. This was nothing to do with the EU; it was a deliberate choice by the British Government.
The Ukip vote hugely increased from the 1999 to 2004 European elections, ironically thanks to the European Parliament’s use of PR, making it the only ballot in which British voters had a real say. Ukip voters were protesting less about eastern European migration — their share of the vote barely changed from 2004 to 2009, the period of the great Polish wave — than that from the developing, and to use very un-English directness, Islamic world. We don’t say that because it sounds unkind — bad vibes, not a good look — but that was the reason.
The most troubling kind of migration was family reunion, in which people from Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries were able to migrate through marriage. It caused huge integration problems, further boosting the diaspora with the culture of the old country, including its language and religious conservatism. It was the opposite of integration: husband and wife were not only almost always from the same ethnic group, but often the same family. This migration was explicitly favoured by Labour, encouraged by ‘community leaders’ who were able to deliver votes to the party.
The result was the increasing problem of segregation, especially in the north, where some towns overtook US rates of separate existence. The downsides of diversity — terrorism, honour killings, grooming gangs — were so obviously disastrous that it took society’s most powerful taboo to suppress meaningful debate. New social prohibitions had to be created to avoid noticing these problems. All of this, not the Polish plumber, led to the great agitation over immigration, and the rise of Farage.
This was implicitly understood but, in line with Anglo-Saxons codes about politeness, it wasn’t said. English delicacy has a lot to be said about it, especially when one is talking about groups which are actually composed of individual human beings who might be hurt and offended, but it helped create a false dialogue about migration and the EU.
It was only the influx of Europeans from 2004 that made immigration a subject felt fit to discuss. It went from being unmentionable — if you go through the archive, you can see how BBC interviewers treated any sort of scepticism around 2000 as basically insane — to almost ubiquitous, to the point of tedium.
Ukip became an outlet for anti-immigration feeling and, increasingly, a problem for the Tory party that was trying to ‘modernise’. By 2014 Farage’s party had become so large that David Cameron was forced into a referendum pledge. Much hilarity ensued.
Despite Cameron’s pledge to reduce immigration, the Tories were unable to, partly because EU rules but also because the Conservatives desired cheap labour. This is where the issue of eastern European migration was relevant: the British establishment, like its American equivalent, were now in agreement that unskilled imported labour didn’t reduce native wages; almost all the experts agreed. Common sense, and the law of supply and demand, might suggest otherwise; many British voters, feeling that immigration had become a tool to suppress their wages via foreign competition, were also sceptical.
It was sheer fluke that caused Brexit to happen around the same time as a pandemic which led huge numbers of foreign workers to return home. As the economy reawoke from lockdown, wages in areas depleted of migrants mysteriously soared.
Meanwhile the Conservatives were in a good place, with their greatest election victory in 30 years, in part winning many seats because of immigration (or, at least, Labour lost them because of it). Now freed from those famous Brussels shackles, they could have become the party of what the plurality of Brexit voters wanted — high wages, social solidarity, a secure and affordable place to raise a family. Instead, they’ve decided on another course — and now they can’t blame Europe anymore for their choices.
So the almost comical result of Brexit is that immigration is set to continue at record levels, except that rather than coming from Poland or Romania, new arrivals will mostly hail from Asia and Africa. To the Global Britain Brexiteers the huge economic costs and hassle of leaving the EU may be entirely worth this, but it’s safe to say they do not constitute a huge number. Indeed, both Leave and Remain voters prefer European to non-European immigration, and would both like far lower levels than this Government is currently allowing.
Among the various groups alienated by Brexit, the most resiliently anti-Tory are the younger cohort, and despite being the most favourable to open borders they will lose out the most from Global Britain. While Boris tells his friends in the BJP how Britain is open, the average cost of buying a home has increased by 10% in just one year. The current housing crisis is heavily linked to immigration, and while the ratio of people-to-property continues to rise, the country’s birth rates plummet. This is sign of a generation who feel they have no future, and who have been abandoned by a party who are supposed to care about posterity. The cohort of British people born around the millennium are destined to have no home.
Public concern about immigration has decreased since the referendum, and views about immigrants generally have become more positive, which suggests that the public were partly motivated by a feeling that they lacked control. I am highly doubtful that this will last. Already the voters are not impressed with the Government’s record on immigration, so that, with their appalling performance on the economy and crime, the Tories have lost the lead in their three strongest areas.
The importance of ‘control’ is anyway debatable. EU migration was not high from 1997-2004 and yet the salience of the topic rose, nonetheless. Today the British public have ‘control’ of immigration in the same way that citizens of eastern bloc countries ‘owned’ their public services. We have the choice of two parties, both of which — for various economic, cultural or electoral reasons — want it far higher than the public desire.
The Brexiteers had one job, and they failed miserably. We’ve gone to all the hassle and trauma of leaving the EU in order to effectively adopt something that resembles Tony Blair’s immigration policy. If I was reading about this level of elite stupidity and ineptness in some distant historical kingdom, it would be genuinely funny. History is one great black comedy, after all, but it’s not fun when your country and its leaders play centre stage.