The Brexit vote was evidently not just about immigration. But if there is a paramount reason for Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union, it is the seething discontent of a large slice of the public, created by 20 years of historically unprecedented immigration levels and the insouciant response of the political class to this change—one that never appeared in an election manifesto and was never chosen by anyone.
The consensus of establishment opinion over the past generation—minus several tabloid newspapers—has ranged from a happy embrace of the change to a belief that it is an uncontrollable force of nature. Yet around 75 percent of the population (including more than half of ethnic minority citizens) has consistently told pollsters that immigration is too high with the salience of the issue rising steadily to the top of the list of national concerns.
Immigration has become a metaphor for the larger disruptions of social and economic change, especially for those who have done least well out of them. In the quiet of their living rooms most people have quite nuanced views on different forms of immigration and tend to be more positive about the local story, yet immigration overall still stands for “change as loss.”
This should be no surprise. Large-scale immigration is always and everywhere unpopular— Canada is a partial exception, where mass (albeit highly selective) immigration has become part of the country’s national identity.
It is a basic human instinct to be wary of strangers and outsiders. In rich, individualistic modern societies, tribal and ethnic instincts may have abated, but they have not disappeared and have been supplemented by anxiety about sharing economic space and public goods with outsiders.
Britain has not become a country of angry nativists and xenophobes. Indeed, the growing opposition to immigration in recent years has been accompanied by increasing liberalism on almost all cultural matters. As recently as the early 1980s, about 80 percent of the population thought same-sex relationships were wrong, now a large majority support gay marriage. The number of white British people objecting to someone of a minority race marrying into their family or being their boss is now in single figure percentages.
Nevertheless, there are several caveats. First, there is a hard core of nativists and racists of about 7 percent of the population. The BNP won nearly 1m votes in the 2009 European elections.
Second, there is a larger group—possibly a majority—who broadly accept the shallow liberalism that is the dominant ethos and are comfortable with difference at a micro-level at work or in social life, yet still do not like the macro changes to their city or country and worry that too many newcomers are not integrating.
Third, although chauvinistic nationalism is much rarer in modern Britain than it was a couple of generations ago, attachment to national social contracts and the belief that national citizens should be first in the queue remain as strong as ever. People are more likely to be entwined with the welfare system via tax credits or housing benefit and although state employment overall has been in decline, if you live in some of the most run-down parts of Britain you will probably be employed by the state. This does not necessarily make you a flag-waving nationalist but it might make you more sensitive to competition with “outsiders” for school places, hospital beds, or social housing.
The latest British Social Attitudes Survey finds that 42 percent think immigration is good for the economy and 35 percent say it is bad. There is a class division, too: 15 percent of graduates think immigration is bad for the economy, compared with 51 percent of those with no educational qualifications.
Is this false consciousness? To many liberals the popular hostility to large-scale immigration is a classic example of people sacrificing their material interests for their cultural values, but that assumes a widely spread economic benefit from immigration. It is true that the effect on jobs and wages at the bottom end is less negative than many people assume. On the other hand, there is not a strikingly positive economic story for the existing population on wages, employment, or growth—and taking immigration as a whole, the fiscal contribution is slightly negative.
The liberal view—often supplemented by the observation that it is areas of lowest immigration that are most opposed to it—also misreads the social psychology of mass immigration. The issue is the psychology of recognition, or rather the lack of it.
In areas of high immigration people doing middling and low skill jobs can come to feel even more like a replaceable cog in the economic machine as they are exposed to greater competition of various kinds with outsiders. Instead of the “one nation” they are beseeched to sign up to they will often see a political class casting aside the common-sense principle of fellow-citizen favoritism.
Areas of low immigration are often depressed former industrial areas or seaside towns where people feel that the national story has passed them by, as it has. Opposition to immigration there is more about the changing priorities of the country and its governing class, priorities that no longer seem to include them.
How then with no strong economic rationale and the opposition of a clear majority of the country have we become a country of mass immigration?
Having absorbed, not without conflict, the post-colonial wave in the decades after the 1950s, Britain in the mid-1990s had become a multiracial society with an immigrant and settled minority population of around 4m (about 7 percent).
At that stage, it was not a society with persistently large inflows. Today, it is. About 16 percent of the working-age population were born abroad and in the past generation Britain’s immigrant and minority population (including white non-British) has trebled to about 12m, or over 20 percent—25 percent in England.
Some of this is a success story of an open society, such as the growing minority middle class. Yet to many people the change is simply too rapid, symbolized by the fact that many of our largest cities, including London, Birmingham, and Manchester, are now at or close to majority- minority status.
Up until the mid-1990s, Britain had never experienced gross annual inflows of over 300,000 but since then the annual inflows have rarely been below 600,000. This step change is not unique to Britain and is part of what we call globalization. Nevertheless, it was not inevitable on that scale and required the active political support of the 1997–2010 Labour government. Labour did not intend to turn Britain into a mass immigration society but most party leaders and activists, increasingly drawn from the liberal graduate professional class, felt at ease with the change.
Several decisions were taken by Labour— above all the decision to open the British labor market to the new EU states of Central and Eastern Europe in 2004, seven years before any other major EU state—all of which were reasonable in their own terms, which together created a far more open immigration regime.
Labour lost the 2010 election, and some analysts believe immigration was a decisive factor. The coalition then took power with a Conservative pledge to cut annual net immigration numbers from 250,000 to around 100,000.
The coalition achieved short-term success, with Theresa May as Home Secretary reducing net non-EU immigration from 217,000 in December 2010 to 143,000 in December 2013, thanks to clamping down on the abuse of student visas, raising the income threshold for people wanting to bring in spouses, and effectively banning low-skill immigration from outside the EU.
This dealt with the fallacy that reducing immigration had become impossible in the modern world. Unfortunately, the pledge to reduce net inflows to “tens of thousands”—unwise in retrospect—was badly knocked off course by another surge from Europe, this time mainly young people from Spain, Portugal, and Italy escaping the eurozone crisis. Net immigration is now over 300,000 and may rise further before it falls.
This is the background to the Brexit vote. And that vote has merely further complicated one of the central tasks of British public policy: how to respond to the legitimate desire of a large majority to reduce immigration while minimizing damage to an economy that has in some sectors become dependent on migrants. Visa-free travel within Europe can continue after Brexit, but a deal between Britain and the EU will surely involve replacing the current free movement of citizens with a work-permit controlled inflow of labor.
This did not matter when only few people crossed EU borders, but after 2004 when it became a mass movement it was a hammer blow to the belief that national citizens deserve priority.
Most British people have a rather positive view of individual East Europeans, and especially Poles around half of whom seem to have settled permanently, but are still bemused by the fact that their national government cannot control the scale of the flows.
Angela Merkel must now sorely regret not being able to offer David Cameron a more radical overhaul of European citizenship and free movement. It is not impossible that Brexit might yet create a head of steam for such reform—Merkel’s coalition partners the Social Democrats recently raised the possibility of a long qualifying period for most social benefits for EU citizens.
Even when Britain re-establishes some kind of work-permit controls inside or outside the single market, with more restricted access to the social state for a period for EU citizens, Britain’s pull factor of the English language and jobs will remain. Even unskilled workers from the poorer EU countries or from countries further east will still be needed in food processing, agriculture, and elsewhere. British workers are prepared to do tough and anti-social work if it is well paid— look at the oil rigs. Still, the work in those sectors is heavily seasonal, requires flexible 24-hour shift patterns, and is often in underpopulated areas of the country. And thanks to the margin pressure from the supermarket chains, pay is as basic as the law will allow. This is not work that people with other options will take.
In any case, there are still plenty of things that a British government can do within existing legal frameworks to better control borders and to reassure citizens. Here are five ideas.
First, we need a dedicated immigration and integration department. The Home Office could shed its policing functions to the Justice Ministry and become that department. It also needs a bigger, ring-fenced budget. Proper border control in a more mobile era is expensive yet we spend only about L2bn a year on it—about 0.3 percent of public spending. Second, at the heart of the new department should be a beefed-up migration impacts fund (MIF). The MIF was invented by Labour in 2008 to deal with social infrastructure pinch points in areas of high immigration but only has an annual budget of about L35m. That should be increased tenfold. Local authorities and other public bodies should bid for funds and, when granted, the extra funding should be publicized in the local media.
Third, we need a high-profile commission to consider how hiring and training British citizens can be made more attractive for employers. Is under-investment in technical skills partly the result of it being too easy to bring trained people from outside the EU on skilled worker and intra-company transfer schemes? About 150,000 such visas were granted last year with about 60,000 for dependents. The commission should also review how public spending cuts can trigger immigration. Cuts to nurse training budgets (they fell 20 percent from 2010 to 2013) means more nurses from Poland or Portugal.
Fourth, many people who voted for Brexit have an uneasy sense that those running the country do not know how many immigrants are here or where they are. And they are right. It is time for an overhaul of migration statistics and a much more reliable oversight of movement across borders. To that end we need a Scandinavian style population register for all citizens (and non-citizens) incorporating a unique person number.
Finally, we need to establish a more formal distinction between full and temporary citizenship. Almost two-thirds of the annual inflow into Britain is temporary—whether students or workers—and the number of people granted citizenship has actually fallen in recent times to a steady 100,000 a year. Why? Because EU citizens form a higher proportion of the inflow and they do not want or need to become British.
Anxieties about integration exacerbate opposition to immigration, and with some reason. There is a growing divergence in neighborhoods and schools in some areas between the white British and some minority groups—especially those from conservative Muslim backgrounds. In recent years a second integration problem has been added: while, as I noted earlier, some people from Eastern Europe settle down, learn the language, and integrate, others have no desire to integrate into British society because they are here for a short period to earn money.
Thanks to the lack of a distinction between full and guest citizenship this creates unnecessary resentment: we allow people into our national home, the reasoning goes, and they treat it as a transit camp and a temporary convenience. Yet this is not the reaction to seeing, say, a Chinese student. They would look like someone who is here for a limited time—to the mutual advantage of Britain and the student—who will return home after that.
A guest citizen is not a full member, does not have full access to social and political rights, and leaves after a few years. Formalizing guest citizenship would mean that we could concentrate rights, benefits, and integration efforts on those who are making a commitment to this country. There is a trade-off, as academics like Martin Ruhs and Branko Milanovic have argued, between migration and citizenship. If we want to continue with relatively high inflows, we have to guard full citizenship more jealously.
Immigration after Brexit will remain uncertain— not least for those 3.3m EU citizens already here and the 1.2m Brits in other EU countries—but it is unlikely to fall sharply unless we hit a serious recession. In the longer run, the democratic mandate requires lower numbers and greater mitigation of negative consequences—economic and psychological—for existing citizens.
Britain became a mass immigration society much as it became an imperial one—in a fit of absence of mind. The political class must now realize that managing this better is at the center of a modern state’s responsibilities.
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