The announcement, on 26 May 2016, that net migration for the previous year had reached 333,000 was a pivotal moment in the Brexit referendum campaign. Until that point, the debate had focused on the economic risks of leaving the EU. From then on, immigration was at the forefront of much of the electorate’s minds, and central to the Leave campaigns. It proved to be decisive.
Seven years later and the net migration figure for 2022 has been announced: 606,000. Less than expected but still a record. The announcement has been much anticipated, and it is the leading story of the day. And, earlier this week, the government announced a tightening of the allowance for the dependents of overseas students. But compared with the furore of 2016, immigration right now is less of an issue for voters. Today’s figures may change that but the lack of political fallout has been striking.
Polling says legal immigration is not a priority issue for the public. Yes, small boats and illegal immigration rank quite highly, but they are well behind the cost of living and the NHS. We have just had a set of local elections in which the Conservatives lost seats to Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens but support for the anti-immigration parties – Ukip, Reform and so on – has been conspicuously absent. What is going on?
Some supporters of Brexit will argue that the vote to leave the EU was more about regaining control over immigration than cutting the numbers. As a Remain campaigner, it did not feel like that at the time. But in fairness that was the specific position of the official Vote Leave campaign, if not the unofficial, Nigel Farage-backed Leave UK campaign. The polling suggests that many Leave voters do care more about control than cutting the numbers, which is why they care much more about the 45,000 arriving here in small boats than the 1.2 million arriving in a way that is sanctioned by the government.
A more relaxed attitude to immigration could even be described as a rare benefit of Brexit. Whether that will survive the publication of these numbers, and the increasingly vociferous complaints that Brexit has been betrayed, remains to be seen.
The argument about control, however, is only a partial explanation for why attitudes have changed in the past seven years. For a start, we now have bigger things to worry about. Although it is rather unfashionable to point this out, the country was in decent shape in 2016. Immigration was a concern but it mostly resulted from an extraordinarily dynamic jobs market. We were the fastest-growing economy in the G7, living standards were rising (with particularly strong earnings growth among the lowest paid), and the public finances had been stabilised. The NHS faced pressures but not on the scale of today.
Declining living standards, sluggish economic growth and strained public services now matter more to people than reducing immigration. Much of the public can also see that reducing immigration, in the current circumstances, would make these bigger issues worse.
Those calling for big cuts to immigration have to explain where they should fall. If we want to reduce the number of work visas, that means fewer nurses and care workers (more than 100,000 of whom got work visas last year), which is not obviously a good idea.
How about university students? They pay very high tuition fees (which cross-subsidise domestic fees), spend money on goods and services in this country, generally develop an affection for the UK that strengthens our soft power, and then either leave or stay and add to our skilled labour market and pay taxes here.
When considering the scenarios in which the UK will thrive in the future, every realistic option involves a successful higher education sector. Achieving this without a large number of foreign students is implausible.
What about the dependents of students? This is where the government has focused this week, because it is a growing number. Perhaps there is scope for some tightening here but we are generally talking about the young and well-educated partners of students plus their children. They also have the financial means to support themselves. Prevent them from coming and we may not get the students, either.
What soon becomes apparent is that we are in a world of trade-offs. Very often, the people coming to the UK offer us something we want, especially at a time when so many have left the labour market because of the pandemic and the consequences of an ageing population begin to show. Turning migrants away comes at a cost.
The biggest change since 2016 is that there is now a greater awareness of the balance of arguments. Yes, there are limits to the numbers that can be absorbed without creating issues for community cohesion. A country is entitled to ask itself, in the case of economic migrants, what is in it for us – and set rules accordingly, and be able to enforce them. But the reality for the UK is that there is quite a lot in it for us.
Too often as a country in recent years we have subordinated our economic interests to other motivations. In the case of immigration, public opinion has moved to a more pragmatic position. Rather than react in horror to today’s numbers, our politicians should recognise and welcome changing public attitudes.
[See also: Labour’s immigration opportunity]