In 2013, Boris Johnson boasted that he was “the only politician I know . . . willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration”. Last year, he supported an amnesty for illegal migrants. His Conservative colleague Michael Gove expressed similarly liberal sentiments: “Our country has succeeded in the past by being open, by being inclusive. The debate on immigration has been poisoned by those who say we should pull up the barriers.”
Yet both men are now at the head of one of the most rancid campaigns in recent electoral history. In its quest to win the EU referendum on 23 June, Vote Leave has shamelessly exploited fears over immigration. “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU”, a new poster announced. It is not. The EU has no wish to move its border to Syria and Iraq. Should Turkey ever qualify for accession, the UK retains a veto (as do Cyprus and Greece) – a matter Vote Leave has ignored.
Vote Leave’s signature campaign pledge is to end the free movement of EU migrants to the UK. Instead, Mr Johnson and Mr Gove say, they would introduce an Australian-style points system to reduce numbers. That country’s remote location and “fortress” mentality have long made it the model of choice for conservatives. But it is at odds with reality. In totality, Australia’s immigration system is more liberal than ours. The most recent estimates put net migration there at 187,000 – proportionately to respective populations, this is more than 50 per cent higher than for the UK. In addition to the points system, employers are permitted to recruit overseas staff on temporary visas. That so many do partly explains Australia’s buoyant economic performance and increasing ethnic diversity.
After leaving the EU, the UK could adopt a more restrictive approach to immigration. But it would do so at the cost of depressing economic growth and harming public services. EU migrants contribute far more in taxes than they claim in benefits and provide youthful labour to support an ageing population, as well as doing jobs many Britons will not.
Mr Johnson and Mr Gove have blamed immigration for the housing crisis and the pressures on the National Health Service. But the Brexiteers’ approach would exacerbate most problems. As senior health and housing figures have repeatedly stated, reduced migration would deprive them of staff they could not replace.
Politicians have a duty to address, rather than dismiss, anxieties over immigration. The matter needs to be debated candidly. Public trust was damaged by the last Labour government’s forecast that just 13,000 eastern Europeans a year would migrate to the UK. But these legitimate concerns are entirely distinct from the noxious propaganda published by the Leave campaign. Whether or not they win the referendum, they have already lost honour.
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe