Brexit was meant to deliver lower immigration, but the reverse is happening
The British government has launched a “high potential individual” route to attract the “brightest and best” graduates from around the world to Britain. Those with a degree will have a good chance at a 2-year work visa and can bring their families in, a bridge to a longer-term work visa. Boris Johnson and many elite Brexiteers believe that Brexit was about sovereignty and control, not immigration numbers. This narrative served to deflect the charge of racism during the Leave campaign, but also highlighted that Vote Leave elites really are motivated by a high-immigration, libertarian Singapore-on-Thames vision.
The problem for Johnson is that the dream of a free-trading global Britain is not why most people voted for Brexit. Instead, immigration was by far the most important motivation for Leave voters. The 2019 British Election Study shows that 8 in 10 people who voted Conservative or Brexit Party wanted less immigration, and on a scale from 0 (reduce a lot) to 5 (stay the same) to 10 (increase a lot), the average 2019 Tory voter scores little more than 2 out of 10.
As Clare Foges points out in an important piece in the Times today, 60% of those polled in 2016 thought Brexit would deliver lower levels of immigration and, at the time, Johnson argued that there was “no public consent for the scale of immigration we are seeing”. Yet, six years later, new Home Office figures show that nearly a million people were offered visas last year: work visas are up 50% from 2019-20, study visas up 58%, visas granted for family reasons up 63%.
In a set of survey experiments in 2018, I found that the balance of UK respondents preferred lower numbers even if this meant a less skilled immigration intake. This was especially true when immigration was tied to more rapid ethnic change in Britain (i.e. a drop to 58% White British by 2060 instead of 65% with lower immigration). When these ethnocultural effects were pointed out in each option, support for skilled immigration dropped 25 percentage points. This gets at the source of immigration anxiety, which is primarily cultural, not economic, and is concentrated among those with a psychological makeup which views difference as disorder and change as loss.
The Johnson government is pursuing an “Australia strategy” predicated on the idea that if you have control, numbers don’t matter. This has worked — temporarily — in Australia and Canada, but these societies are characterised by a weaker popular attachment to history and, certainly in Canada, growing polarisation on cultural lines. Populism around high levels of legal immigration has flared in New Zealand, focused on a narrative of high house prices and urban sprawl. Attempting such a strategy in Britain is a risky bet for a government which relies on culturally-conservative Red Wall voters for its survival.
It is true, as British Future and others point out, that immigration has fallen down voters’ priority list. But we have been living in highly unusual times. Managing a successful Brexit, followed by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, followed by the first interstate war in Europe since 1945. These events, and their economic knock-on effects, will not dominate the headlines forever. When the 2007-8 economic crisis subsided, the economy fell down EU citizens’ priority lists while immigration rose. This was the lay of the land prior to Brexit and the wider European populist moment, and when we return there, a government which has presided over high immigration levels may well be exposed, like David Cameron’s, to a populist insurgency.