It was never on the posters, or the buses. Vote Leave’s slogan “Take back control” wasn’t a rallying cry for it. Nigel Farage’s “BREAKING POINT” van hoarding, echoing Nazi propaganda with its image of queuing migrants, screamed the very opposite.
Yet quietly, Brexit Britain has become a high-immigration country. There are now more migrants coming to the UK than before the EU referendum in 2016. With the end of free movement for EU citizens, the share of non-EU migration to the UK has risen.
Ministers are embracing it. The Health Secretary Steve Barclay is running a big recruitment drive for nurses from abroad, and wants to invite more foreign social care workers in too.
In fact, 75,963 healthcare work visas were granted in the 12 months up to March 2022, compared with 14,016 the year before. Despite its tough talk on restricting immigration, the government added all sorts of health and care jobs to its “shortage occupation list” in March 2021 – meaning looser visa rules for foreign workers in those sectors. It’s not hard to work out why, given the number of vacancies in the UK has outstripped the number of available workers for the first time ever.
Yet there is also a lesson here about British public attitudes. People are far more sympathetic towards immigration than before the 2016 EU referendum: they are now more likely to see its contribution as positive (46 per cent) than negative (28 per cent). This is a reversal of sentiments measured in 2015 by the same polling tracker for the British Future think tank.
The public is twice as likely to prioritise “control” over reducing immigration numbers. This position undermines the Conservative Party’s doomed sub-100,000 net migration target introduced by David Cameron in 2010 and finally ditched by Boris Johnson three years ago.
What is interesting is that this sentiment prevails even among those who voted Leave in 2016, and did so too in the immediate aftermath of the referendum: 82 per cent of Leavers were happy for high-skilled migration from the EU to remain at current levels or increase, according to a 2017 report by British Future.
When you speak to pollsters, “controlled” and “skilled” seem to be the golden words that bring Brits on board with immigration.
The government has realised this. To follow the “skilled” rule, the government simply disguises its recruitment of lower-paid overseas workers (such as the European carers and lorry drivers we were all accustomed to pre-Brexit) by sticking them on the shortage occupation list whenever it needs to. That’s a good thing in terms of liberalising the immigration system.
Yet to follow the “controlled” rule, its tactics are darker. Footage of migrants arriving on small boats over the English Channel undermines the image of “control” – so ministers concoct cruel, pointless policies like the Rwanda deportation deal. Another consequence of a system stacked against desperate newcomers is poor refugee responses. Two-year-olds fleeing Ukraine have been forced to wait and take biometric visa tests. Afghans who helped the UK government have been abandoned to the Taliban, living in fear for their lives.
Our Brexiteer overlords may now rely on immigration, but they remain hostile towards the most vulnerable arrivals to our shores.
[See also: Keir Starmer is letting a crisis go to waste]