Of all the reasons to be opposed to Brexit, the least heralded was that it was all too much bother. There just wasn’t any point going to all that trouble: Leavers were identifying a few policy nuts and applying a massive constitutional sledgehammer. Really, Europe wasn’t all that big a deal and given that we were in, the wise conservative course of action was to stick with the status quo and think about something more interesting.
Of course, nobody made this point and perhaps inertia and lack of interest are too sophisticated for political argument. Yet the sheer pointlessness of the whole episode is now starting to become clear, and nowhere more so than with the vexed question of immigration.
After all the sound and fury of the referendum and its subsequent shenanigans, Britain now has an immigration rate which is almost as high as it has ever been. The much advertised points-based immigration system is more liberal than its predecessor, and the number of migrants from outside the European Union has grown significantly. In the spare time left to it when officials are not in mutiny over their principal’s egregious asylum policy, the Home Office has just issued figures which show that almost 240,000 work-related visas were granted last year, which is a full 25 per cent higher than in 2019. Less than a tenth of these visas were granted to migrants from the European Union. The big growth is coming from the rest of the world. The number of visas granted to Pakistanis has grown 255 per cent since 2019, those to Nigerians by 415 per cent, and visas for Indians have grown by 164 per cent. On his twice-delayed trip to India this week, Boris Johnson has said that his country is short of workers and has promised a passage to Britain for more interested Indians.
The growth of non-European immigration was precisely the issue that inspired the rise of Ukip and made Nigel Farage an enduring political figure. Ukip’s advance came at the 2004 European elections, which was before the impact of large immigration flows from the more recent members of the EU. Brexit has, in other words, accelerated the very immigration that was the source of the discontent that led to Brexit.
This might, conceivably, not matter as much as it seems. Popular concern about immigration has fallen markedly in recent times. Concern about immigration hit its peak in September 2015 when 56 per cent of the country named it as the most salient issue facing Britain. In June 2016, on the threshold of the referendum, 48 per cent of Britons said immigration was their top issue. By November 2019 that had fallen to 13 per cent. Analysis by the equality and diversity think tank British Future of data sets from Ipsos Mori has argued persuasively that British people are not any more hostile to immigration than the populations of other European nations and they are, in fact, more likely than most to be welcoming to immigrants with a high level of work-related skill.
The softening of attitudes towards immigration is, without doubt, one of the few benefits of Brexit so far. Some of the heat has gone from the issue, and that is a good thing, but that is not the same as saying that the question of immigration no longer counts — because it does. And the government has a problem. On immigration, as a recent YouGov poll showed, the government has an approval rating of -57. Immigration is second, after inflation, in the set of issues that the public regard the government as having failed on. It is highly likely that the disappointment is greatest in the areas in which the Tories now need to retain former Labour voters. The prospects of the Prime Minster and the future of his government may rest on what happens in the May local elections in Brexit-voting areas.
For a while, senior Tories consoled themselves with the idea that people voted for Brexit simply to gain control, and that a high level of immigration was all well and good as long as it was chosen by the British government rather than an accident of European regulations. It wasn’t really true. Immigration has always been a surrogate question in British politics. It isn’t really about hostility to foreigners and it is not about control either. It is about living standards and a life that appears to be going off the rails. It is about the desire for more comfort, more ease of living. “Immigration” was always a cultural cloak for a question with roots in the material life of the British working class.
That material life is getting harder every day now. It will be small consolation, if it is any consolation at all, for people to be told they now have some notional control. The idea of control was itself a surrogate for the demand that life should be better. The British state has not, since 2010, been able to supply an increase in living standards to most of its people. This parliament will be the first in British history in which every quintile of the population will experience a fall in living standards.
Brexit has accelerated that process too and this is the point at which the decision to leave the European Union really did turn out to be substantive. It wasn’t just a major hassle. It was also an economic error, and given that immigration is a disguised economic problem it is going to turn up in the polling. For a liberal cosmopolitan who welcomes immigration, the current numbers hold no fear but, finally, the contradictions of the 2016 referendum campaign are starting to tell.