Jonathan Portes responds to criticism from those who claim what the Brexit campaign really promised was lower immigration
In a recent article for CuratorHomeI described the government’s post-Brexit immigration policy as a rare success: a Brexit promise that had largely been successfully delivered.
I argued that ending free movement and equalizing work and study visa conditions between people from Europe and beyond had both met the terms of Vote Leave’s stated commitment. and its aim to move away from less skilled and paid immigration. The new system also appears to be widely accepted by the public.
The findings should be welcomed by economists and pro-migration liberals. A substantial increase in migration from outside Europe, especially in higher paying and higher skilled jobs, more than offsetting reductions in EU migration. At the same time, political developments have led to a sharp increase in refugee flows from Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly, this thesis was not acclaimed by all.
The first criticism of him is that what the Brexit campaign was really promising – and what those who voted for Brexit really wanted and voted for – was much lower immigration. But that’s just not the case.
Reducing migration to the “tens of thousands” was promised by David Cameron in the Conservative Manifesto in 2010, then again in 2015, then reaffirmed by Theresa May in 2017 – all the rest of course. But the Vote Leave campaign was careful, understandably given the failures of Cameron and May, not to give such hostages to fortune.
It is undoubtedly true that there was a strong undercurrent of xenophobia in the Leave campaign – not just Nigel Farage’s notorious “Breaking Point” poster, but also Vote Leave’s official alarmism about the possible future Turkey’s accession to the EU. It is also true that a substantial majority of voters, both Leave and Remain, did indeed expect Brexit to reduce migration flows. But that misses the point.
If the Leave-voting public had indeed been fooled by a campaign that implicitly promised much lower immigration, and delivered no such thing, then we would expect a strong backlash now. The usual suspects on the ethno-nationalist right do their best to raise the specter of this.
Eric Kaufmann has long argued that what British voters really want is fewer non-white migrants. write in Detachment, he argued that reducing immigration was the way to win back “national populist” voters. Except that even torturing his own dodgy data and making some pretty obvious mistakes in the process, he can’t show anything like it. Similarly, Ed West has said that “Brexiters have a job” and argues that what voters really want to reduce non-European migration. Neil O’Brien’s article, to which I originally responded, is a carefully sanitized version of the same argument.
Essentially, their argument is that the British public suffers from a false conscience – and that when they find out what’s really going on there will be a backlash, and it won’t be pretty.
Their stance has a lot in common with Remainers on Twitter who insist that Brexit voters are going to be extremely unhappy when they notice that what Brexit has meant in practice is fewer European migrants, but far more people. ‘Indians and Nigerians. But so far, that just hasn’t happened.
Immigration remains well down the list of issues of public concern. Even in the Conservative leadership campaign, despite the candidates’ race to the bottom on broader social issues and their enthusiastic endorsement of Rwandan politics, neither proposed meaningful changes to the immigration system in the sense wide.
As I have written in these previous pages, this sounds less like a simple hostility to immigration than “the schizophrenic approach of New Labour: economic liberalism, combined with an instinctive hostility to refugees”.
If it were really the case that there was a silent majority in favor of much lower immigration, then specific policies designed to achieve this would be very popular – and politicians like O’Brien would champion them. But they don’t really seem to have the courage of their convictions.
Few mainstream Tories advocate scrapping Hong Kong’s visa scheme, or making NHS and care sector shortages even worse, or making it much harder for international students to come to the UK – for the simple reason that such proposals would not only be harmful but also unpopular.
The most valid criticism of the thesis is that the pendulum could easily swing back. If public acceptance of high levels of immigration is driven by post-pandemic awareness of the UK’s dependence on guest workers and current labor shortages , it may not survive a hard slowdown. Moreover, the media has so far largely ignored recent increases in migration flows, with the most xenophobic elements preferring to focus on the Channel crossings. That could change.
And it is possible that the debate will become more difficult. But there is an element of unnecessary fatalism here – an assumption by pro-migration liberals that the vast majority of Brits are at best islanders and at worst racist, and that there is little that can be done to change this, so any improvements to the system must come stealthily.
This ignores the fact that changing public opinion on immigration is not a recent event – it has been moving in that direction, slowly but steadily, for a decade.
Could it be that the arguments and pleas – of migrant organisations, trade unions, civil society and (dare I say it) economists – could, over time, really change their minds? This is not an argument for complacency but at least for cautious optimism.
Finally, I have been criticized for ignoring the labor shortages which are a very visible consequence of the end of free movement in a number of sectors. While – as far as we can tell, given the difficulty of interpreting the data – overall labor migration is probably at about the same level as in the years leading up to the pandemic, there has been a substantial change in the sectoral distribution of migratory flows.
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The overwhelming majority of visas are now issued for jobs in health and social services, IT and business services, and finance; other sectors which previously received large flows from Europe, notably the hotel industry, are having great difficulty recruiting staff, while agriculture is suffering from both the end of free movement and the ‘Ukraine.
This will certainly have an economic cost. Employers face an unpleasant set of choices: raise wages to recruit more resident workers, increase productivity through investment or more efficient work practices, or simply reduce production. But this is a feature, not a bug, of the new system.
The Brexit argument, of course, has always been that free movement drives down wages and that removing it would result in a “high-wage, high-productivity” economy. There is little to no evidence of this so far – not only are real wages falling across the board, but so far it is the highest paid workers and sectors that have suffered the least. Nevertheless, over time, one would expect some increase in relative wages in the most affected sectors and investment in labor-saving machinery, for example in agriculture.
Much of the adjustment will have to happen through other means, but it will come. Some sectors may shrink, with some business models becoming unprofitable; part of the production can move abroad. This is an inevitable consequence of the end of free movement, with its flexibility, its lack of bureaucracy and its responsiveness to labor market conditions.
But while regrettable – as is, of course, the loss of the right of Britons to live and work wherever they want in the EU – it is an inevitable consequence of our exit from the single market. This in itself is not a convincing criticism of the new system.
There are still many problems with the current system, even leaving aside the cruelty and racism of Rwandan politics: high visa and settlement fees, especially for families; vindictive restrictive policies on spousal visas; and the broader cultural dysfunction of the Home Office. But that shouldn’t stop us from acknowledging that the new system is, unlike many others, fit for purpose. Sometimes we should take yes for an answer.
Jonathan Portes is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the School of Politics & Economics at King’s College London
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