Immigration used to be the subject everyone pretended it was impossible to discuss. I have myself written speeches in which I complained we had to be able to talk about an issue that was of such importance to the public. It was a conspiracy of silence expressed in speech after speech. There was every reason to talk about it. Immigration, after all, has been the issue that has driven recent British politics.
Concern about immigration was at its height in September 2015, when 56 per cent of the country told Ipsos Mori they thought it was the most important issue of the day. In the month of the Brexit referendum, 48 per cent of the country said the same, a figure that might have been thought of as a prediction of the outcome of the vote. There might have been some of that 48 per cent who voted to remain in the European Union, but surely not many. The career of Nigel Farage has been propelled by fears about immigration, which was always the issue on which Ukip most successfully campaigned. If successive governments had been able to allay concerns about immigration before June 2016, Britain would still be a member of the EU.
Yet something remarkable has happened with immigration. This government has succeeded where others have failed. By February 2020, just before the first lockdown, only 12 per cent of the public placed immigration as their top concern. A couple of months ago, as health and economic worries abounded, concern about immigration was down to just 5 per cent. It is hardly surprising, in a pandemic, that health is the principal concern, with the economy not far behind. But it is salutary and a little surprising that immigration has now fallen behind the environment and education as a worry.
There is an uncomfortable conclusion for the Remain-minded, which is that maybe there was something in the desire to take back control. Immigration itself has not declined, and the towns that exhibited most concern about immigration had very few immigrants. “Immigration” as a political issue was always about more than the presence of immigrants. It is a compound term for fears about wage depression, welfare entitlements, housing allocation, school places and job insecurity. Immigration was, like Brexit itself, the name given to a set of material worries, the projection on to an imaginary band of insurgents of travails that were themselves real enough.
This is an imagined relationship, but that is not to call it unreal. Most of our attachments and allegiances are imaginary, in the sense that they are contained in how we think about something. And it looks as if Britain’s departure from the European Union has changed the mental setting on immigration.
Falling anxiety about immigration now may be analogous to the decline in popular concern about inflation when Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 general election, and a similar collapse in concern about education when Tony Blair won in 1997. The shift in opinion preceded the fall in inflation and the improvements in schools respectively. The public wanted a signal that something would be done and that was enough. Brexit is the signal.
The Conservative Party, however, will find it difficult to live without the noise. Boris Johnson’s flaws as a politician are being exposed by the pandemic but, as tragic and terrible as it is, everyone concerned still hopes – and expects – its troubles to pass. If and when the vaccine liberates the nation, the fragility of Johnson’s position will slowly emerge. Tory voters in rural England and Tory voters in the towns of the north and the Midlands have precious little in common. Brexit was the only binding question and, in time, Johnson is going to need something to talk about that holds his coalition together. Infrastructure spending in the north of England is not going to do it, and the two Tory tribes have precisely opposing views on, for example, the correct levels of taxation. Over the past decade there is, however, one subject that has proved to be a major concern in two places – the shire counties and the market towns – that have very few immigrants, and that issue is immigration.
When levelling up proves to be impossible, and when the rift in its electoral coalition opens, the Conservative Party will return to immigration in desperation. It will have to. With no European Union to act as a receptacle for grievance, immigration will have to be made more salient again. If Priti Patel is still Home Secretary, she will no doubt try to redeem the promise to cut the numbers that saw her through the 2019 general election campaign.
We have, of course, been hearing this promise for a decade now. First in 2010, then again in 2015 and 2017, the Conservative Party promised to cut net migration to below 100,000 a year. Net migration has been at least double that throughout. Patel has played a fanfare about the new immigration system which allots all potential migrants, not just those from outside the EU, points for the skills they bring. This links immigration to prosperity. If the economy grows quickly, we will need imported labour. Having an arbitrary target, which is lower than some previous arbitrary number, makes no sense at all. Except politically.
Yet reviving immigration as a major concern will not be easy. The public has largely concluded that control of the borders has been taken back. If immigration returns as a serious anxiety, the failure will be the government’s own. It used to be said we could not discuss immigration when it was vital to do so. We are about to enter a period in which the government is keen to talk about immigration without any real cause, besides its own survival, to do so.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control