Jonathan Portes answers the criticisms of those who claim that what the Brexit campaign was really promising was lower levels of immigration

In a recent article for ConservativeHome, I 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 equalising conditions for work and study visas between those coming from Europe and elsewhere, had both fulfilled the terms of Vote Leave’s stated commitment and its objective of shifting away from lower-skilled and paid immigration. The new system also seems to command widespread public acceptance. 

The results should be welcomed by economists and pro-migration liberals. A substantial rise in migration from outside Europe, particularly in higher-paid and more skilled jobs, largely offsetting reductions in EU migration. At the same time, political developments have resulted in a sharp rise in refugee flows from Hong Kong, Ukraine and Afghanistan. 

Unsurprisingly, this thesis has not been met with universal acclaim.

The first criticism of it 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 this simply isn’t the case.

Cutting migration to the “tens of thousands” was promised by David Cameron in the 2010 Conservative Manifesto, and again in 2015, and then reaffirmed by Theresa May in 2017 – all Remainers of course. But the Vote Leave campaign was careful, understandably given Cameron and May’s record of failure, not to give any such hostages to fortune. 

It’s 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 the official Vote Leave scaremongering over Turkey’s possible future accession to the EU. It’s also true that a substantial majority of voters, both Leave and Remain, did indeed expect that Brexit would reduce migration flows. But this misses the point. 

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If the Leave-voting public had indeed been taken for fools by a campaign which implicitly promised much lower immigration, and has delivered no such thing, then we’d expect a sharp backlash now. The usual suspects on the ethno-nationalist right are doing their best to conjure up the spectre of exactly that. 

Eric Kaufmann has long argued that what British voters really want is fewer non-white migrants. Writing in Unherd, he has claimed that reducing immigration is the way to reclaim “national populist” voters. Except that even by torturing his own dodgy data, and making some fairly obvious errors in the process, he can’t show any such thing. Similarly, Ed West has said that “the Brexiteers had one job” and argues that what voters really want is to reduce non-European migration. Neil O’Brien’s article, to which I was originally responding, is a carefully sanitised version of the same argument.  

Essentially, their argument is that the British public is suffering from false consciousness – and that when they discover what’s really going on, there will be a backlash, and it won’t be pretty.

Their position has a lot in common with Remainers on Twitter who persist in arguing that Brexit voters are going to be extremely unhappy when they notice that what Brexit has meant in practice is fewer European migrants, but lots more Indians and Nigerians. But so far, it simply hasn’t happened. 

Immigration remains well down on the list of issues of public concern. Even in the Conservative leadership campaign, despite the candidates’ race to the bottom on wider social issues and their enthusiastic endorsement of the Rwanda policy, neither has proposed any significant changes to the wider immigration system. 

As I have written in these pages previously, this looks 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 was really the case that there was a silent majority in favour of much lower immigration, then specific policies designed to achieve that would be very popular – and politicians like O’Brien would be advocating them. But they don’t actually seem to have the courage of their convictions.

Not many mainstream Conservatives are advocating cancelling the Hong Kong visa scheme, or further aggravating NHS and care sector shortages, or making it much harder for international students to come to the UK – for the simple reason that such proposals would not only be damaging but also unpopular. 

The more valid criticism of the thesis is that the pendulum could easily swing back. If public acceptance of high levels of immigration is driven by the realisation, post-pandemic, of how dependent the UK is on immigrant workers, and current labour shortages, then it may not survive a sharp slowdown. Moreover, the media has so far largely ignored the recent increases in migration flows, with the more xenophobic elements preferring to concentrate on Channel crossings.  That could change.

And it’s possible the debate will get more difficult. But there is an element of unnecessary fatalism here – an assumption by pro-migration liberals that the vast majority of Britons are at best insular and at worst racist, and that there’s little that can be done to change that, so any improvements to the system have to come by stealth.

This ignores that the shift in public opinion on immigration isn’t a recent blip – it’s been trending in this direction, slowly but steadily, for a decade.  

Might it be possible that argument and advocacy – by migrants’ organisations, unions, civil society and (dare I say it) economists – may, over time, actually change peoples’ minds?  This isn’t an argument for complacency but at least for cautious optimism. 

Finally, I was criticised for ignoring the labour shortages that are a very visible consequence of the end of freedom of movement in a number of sectors. While – as far as we can tell, given the difficulty in interpreting the data – overall migration for work is probably running at about the same level as in the years leading up to the pandemic, there has been a substantial shift in the sectoral distribution of migration flows. 

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Overwhelmingly, visas are now being issued for jobs in health and social care, IT and business services and finance; other sectors that previously saw large inflows from Europe, in particular hospitality, are finding it very difficult to recruit staff, while agriculture suffers both from the end of free movement and the Ukraine are.

This will certainly impose an economic cost. Employers face a set of unpalatable choices – raise wages to recruit more resident workers, increase productivity through investment or more efficient working practices, or simply reduce output. But this is a feature, not a bug, of the new system. 

The Brexit argument, of course, was always that free movement drove down wages and removing it would result in a “high wage, high productivity” economy. There’s little or no evidence of that so far – not only are real wages falling across the board, but so far at least higher-paid workers and sectors have suffered the least. Nevertheless, over time, we might expect some increase in relative pay in the most affected sectors, and some investment in labour-saving machinery in, for example, agriculture.  

Much of the adjustment will have to come in other ways, but it will come. Some sectors may shrink, as some business models become uneconomic; some production may move abroad. This is an inevitable consequence of the end of free movement, with its flexibility, lack of bureaucracy and responsiveness to labour market conditions. 

But while regrettable – as is, of course, the loss of Britons’ rights to live and work wherever we want in the EU – this is an inevitable consequence of our exit from the Single Market. It’s not in itself a convincing critique of the new system. 

There remains lots wrong with the current system, even leaving aside the cruelty and racism of the Rwanda policy: high visa and settlement fees, especially for families; vindictively restrictive policies on spousal visas; and the broader cultural dysfunction of the Home Office. But that shouldn’t stop us from recognising that the new system is, unlike much else, 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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