Michael Gove has told Radio 4’s Today programme that Brexit had helped to make the UK the most immigration-friendly country in the EU. You read that right, yes.
The Environment Secretary and arch Brexiteer said: “Something very striking was reported by the European Union, actually, a little earlier this year, which is that of all the countries in the EU, Britain is the country with the warmest attitude to migration from outside the EU. We’re the most immigration-friendly country in the EU…” He claimed Brexit had helped with this, arguing that people were more comfortable with immigration now they knew they could control it.
Is this utopian Britain, with its arms outstretched to hopeful immigrants around the globe, ringing any bells? No, me neither. One must pay at least some lip service to the real world, I suppose. Let’s run through the reality of the situation.
During the referendum campaign, Gove made a speech in which he suggested Turkey could join the EU by 2020 and warned that, as a result, millions more people could move to the UK, which he claimed would be “unsustainable” for the NHS. At the time, Remain campaigners accused him of Ukip-style dog whistling, while the prospect of EU membership for Turkey had long been dismissed.
Gove followed this up by pledging a tough new immigration system, and demanding immigrants speak “good English”, a statement that at least one friend of Gove’s interpreted as “a linguistic scare” tactic.
There were record levels of hate crimes in the months after the referendum: race and religious hate crimes rose by 41 per cent after the vote. Islamophobic and xenophobic headlines multiplied: “Immigration is placing a strain on the NHS”, “Migration ‘made it harder for the young to buy homes’”. Anonymous letters were sent round across the country encouraging people to take part in “Punish a Muslim Day”, listing violent acts along with a number of points for performing them.
The Windrush scandal, which could leave an estimated 50,000 facing the risk of deportation despite having lived in the UK legally for decades, is a prime example of how large groups of people played by the book can still be affected by changing immigration policies (sound familiar, EU citizens?). May initially refused to intervene after one man’s uncertain immigration status left him unable to access cancer treatment on the NHS, despite living in the UK for 44 years.
Of course, this ill-feeling (and behaviour) towards migrants hasn’t just been restricted to non-EU nationals. Net migration of EU nationals to Britain is at its lowest level for five years, with murmurs of a so-called Brexodus. There was a 96 per cent drop in EU nurses registering to work in Britain since the vote. There are myriad examples of Poles being physically attacked, targeted by racist leaflets, and told to “go home”.
It’s hard to square all this with the government’s “Britain is open” niceties. But this post-Brexit outpouring of xenophobia didn’t spring from nowhere, it’s been bubbling under the surface for a long time.
It was in 2012 that Theresa May first spoke of her “hostile environment” strategy that is coming back to bite her. Polly Mackenzie, a former policy special adviser to Nick Clegg in the coalition, wrote in The Times today that May sent the Home Office on an “endless, tireless hunt for any policy change that would reduce immigration, no matter the economic, social or human cost.”
“I remember warning endlessly and fruitlessly that these changes would adversely affect anyone with dark skin or a foreign-sounding name,” she wrote, claiming there was a culture in the Home Office that “immigrants and criminals are basically the same”. Wow.
In the bizarre way that only politicians do, the Conservatives have pushed both pro- and anti-immigration rhetoric simultaneously, with no sense of contradiction. Only yesterday did Boris Johnson tell The Telegraph that the UK should make the “liberal” case for immigration, warning “a society not open to talent will die”. While it’s not the first time Johnson has spoken out about the benefits of immigration, he seemed to quitely toss this rhetoric out the window during the referendum campaign, as he blamed EU immigration for driving down wages, putting pressure on the NHS and restricting access to education.
Gove’s claim that all is rosy when it comes to the UK’s attitude to immigration is dangerous. It ignores the plight of thousands upon thousands of people living in post-Brexit Britain as well as a country struggling to deal with its xenophobia past and present.
Now, you’d already have been forgiven for suspecting that Michael Gove might secretly be an alien (see this video of him clapping for further evidence). But if you were looking for further proof, consider his answer when asked to describe the government’s approach to immigration this morning: “Positive, welcoming, liberal, forward-looking.”. Err, what planet is he on?