Last year, for the first time, the British Social Attitudes survey found that a majority of the British public wanted immigration levels to stay the same or increase. The public is becoming more positive to migration as a way of filling gaps in every profession except banking. And where once concern about numbers was a cross-party issue, our conversation about immigration is increasingly a case of the right talking to other bits of the right: polling shows that most swing voters no longer care.
Such were the main points of a fascinating Twitter thread from the University of Manchester politics professor Rob Ford yesterday. Ford, alas, is not the politics professor the TV and radio bookers tend to reach for when the topic of immigration comes up.
So, oddly enough, when the Office for National Statistics published its immigration figures for 2022 on Thursday, the British public’s growing enthusiasm for foreigners did not feature heavily in the coverage. Focus instead was on the fact that net immigration – the number of people added to the country’s population via immigration, rather than other, more immediately biological means – had reached a record high, of 606,000. The Times, who we must assume don’t follow Ford on Twitter, immediately declared that immigration would be a “key battleground in next general election”.
That 606,000 is not, it’s worth stressing, the actual number of people arriving in the UK: that was rather higher, at 1.2 million, thanks to a combination of long-term trends such as the growth of international student numbers, medium-term ones like the post-Brexit increase in non-EU migration, and more recent events (the war in Ukraine; the crisis in Hong Kong). So why was the figure in the headlines only half that? Because another 557,000 people had left the country over the same period.
This is not actually unusual: the ONS data set showed that the annual emigration figure has been bouncing around the half a million mark for years now. The people, of whom there are all too many, banging on about the UK taking in the population of a city the size of Birmingham every year tended not to mention that part. (This is also nonsense, an artefact of the weird way we measure city populations in this country, and any sensible measure of the size of Birmingham is about twice that. That, though, is not the furious rant I’m writing right now.)
The vast majority of emigrants, it’s worth noting, are people who were previously immigrants: 202,000 people from the EU, 263,000 from the rest of the world. A significant chunk of the people who make the choice to move to the UK – to work or study or be with a partner or, hey, just live their lives here for whatever reason they damn well please – do, eventually, leave again. Only a relatively small number of emigrants, a mere 92,000, are actually British citizens.
All of which presents any government ministers still freaking out about net migration figures with an opportunity.
[See also: Why are voters so relaxed about immigration?]
Those who oppose immigration, after all, spend a lot of time telling us that their concerns are absolutely not rooted in anything so gauche as racism. No no, they say, their concern is simply the numbers, and the ability of this country – its housing, infrastructure, public services – to absorb such a rapid increase in population.
And this government has tested to destruction the idea that reducing immigration numbers is easy. Making international students’ lives miserable didn’t do it. Brexit didn’t do it. Even occasional whispered hints to businesses that perhaps they might consider investing in the skills of those already here didn’t do it. And even if the public has, despite those headlines, stopped caring about much of this, the Tory party clearly hasn’t.
So what if it stops trying to reduce immigration and does something else? There are, after all, two sides to net migration. What if instead of endlessly promising and failing to turn people away at the border, it instead just encouraged more people to leave? By, say, making living in this country increasingly intolerable, by allowing prices to spiral out of control, while making sure wages stay flat? What if it just made this country such a miserable place to live that people started trying to leave it?
This wouldn’t just encourage emigration, thus bearing down on the net migration figures. Those best placed to leave and start a new life elsewhere are surely the young; those keenest, the liberal and remain-y citizens of nowhere beloved of furious Tory speechwriters. As a result, such a policy would also have the helpful side effect of reducing the number of unhelpfully anti-Tory voters. It all seems so much easier than trying to fiddle the electoral system.
The only slight concern about the efficacy of this proposal is the lingering suspicion that the government has already tried it. After all, we’re already seeing skilled professionals such as doctors threatening to abandon the NHS for Australia, where they get more money and more respect; there’s been remarkably little evidence of government efforts to make them stay. More than that, many Tory policies – tuition fees, the refusal to build houses, the determination to put any unavoidable tax increases on the young while also telling them that they’re annoying and should go away every thirty seconds or so – start to make much more sense if you assume they’re a deliberate attempt to get the emigration figures up.
So perhaps all of this was deliberate. Perhaps it was a clever plan all along. Because the only alternative is that this government has ruined the country through nothing more than complete and total incompetence. And that can’t be it, surely?