For nearly a decade, the UK’s immigration debate has been defined by numbers, rather than needs or ethics. In 2010, David Cameron announced his ambition to reduce annual net migration to the “tens of thousands” – a target that has been missed ever since. The Eurosceptics routinely blamed the EU’s insistence on free movement for this failure and prescribed Brexit as the cure. But others, such as the former chancellor George Osborne, obstructed efforts to meet the target for fear of the economic consequences. Non-European migration, over which the government had control, consistently outstripped intra-European migration. “Sometimes, I think only Theresa [May] and I actually believe in our immigration policy,” Mr Cameron once complained.
The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and Mrs May’s pledge to deliver a “clean” Brexit – deprives the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. No longer can it fudge the question of how to reconcile the politics of immigration
with the economics.
Cabinet ministers who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, recently admitted in Estonia that it would take “years and years” before Britons could fill vacancies in sectors such as hospitality, dining, agriculture and social care. “Don’t expect just because we’re changing who makes the decision on the policy, the door will suddenly shut – it won’t,” he said. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who cynically warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”
Rather than this haphazard approach, Brexit should be a chance for the UK to introduce a rational immigration policy. The government should begin by abolishing the net migration target. An arbitrary figure that lumps together skilled workers, students and refugees is an obstacle to an enlightened approach. By focusing on the UK’s economic needs, ministers can better determine which forms of immigration to prioritise. Britain should fulfil its moral obligations to refugees and continue to welcome large numbers of international students. Were the UK to reduce net migration significantly from its present level of 273,000, the economy would be harmed (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of approximately £7bn a year). Should ministers pursue this path, they have a duty to make the consequences clear to voters.
It is more likely, however, that Brexit will result in a modest reduction in immigration. To increase public consent for a liberal approach, ministers should introduce a contributory welfare system, which requires newcomers to pay in before taking out, and address grievances such as the housing shortage, low pay and overstretched public services. Greater social and cultural integration should be encouraged.
No longer can it be said that politicians “don’t talk about immigration”: at times, they talk about little else. Yet we require more candour. After “taking back control”, silence and evasion will not be acceptable.
Gerald Kaufman (1930-2017)
The death of Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton (as well as its predecessor Manchester Ardwick) since 1970 and a former NS film critic, marks the end of an era in Labour politics. Before becoming an MP, he worked as an aide to Harold Wilson and, after being elected to parliament, he held various front-bench posts, in office and in opposition. He was shadow foreign secretary from 1987 until the party’s defeat in 1992. Working closely with Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, he strove to lead Labour back from the political margins to the mainstream. Acerbic and witty (he called Labour’s 1983 manifesto “the longest suicide note in history”), Mr Kaufman was a leader writer at the Daily Mirror, a satirist on That Was the Week That Was and the Booker Prize chair in 1999. His death leaves the Commons a less colourful place – and Kenneth Clarke as Father of the House.
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again