Martin Shaw replies to economist Jonathan Portes’ recent Byline Times article, which argued that the Government’s post-Brexit immigration system is a ‘rare success’

Writing in these pages recently, economist Jonathan Portes argued that the Government’s post-Brexit immigration policy is “a rare success”, which has even left the UK with a ‘new’ immigration system that is “fit for purpose”. Portes knows UK immigration issues inside-out and is a staunch anti-racist, but if the idea that this Government should have gotten such a difficult area of policy fundamentally right sounds far-fetched then that’s because – I argue – it is.

Portes is right, of course, that that there have some positive post-Brexit changes in the immigration context. The numbers of non-EU migrants to the UK (and the proportion of total migration that they represent) have risen significantly as policy, especially towards skilled migrants, has been loosened. This has happened without an anti-immigrant backlash, partly because public attitudes towards the level of immigration have softened. 

So why is his overall argument wrong?

‘The Government’s Post-BrexitImmigration Policy is a Rare Success’

Jonathan Portes

Most obviously, because the idea of a ‘new system’ suggests that limited policy changes – for example to income thresholds for incoming migrants and rules for areas of skilled labour shortage such as health – represent a more general transformation. The things that are still unacceptable, which he lists as “high visa and settlement fees, especially for families; vindictively restrictive policies on spousal visas; and the broader cultural dysfunction of the Home Office” and even “the cruelty and racism of the Rwanda policy” are presented as of secondary importance.

This gets things the wrong way round.

Cruelty and racism are not specific to the Rwanda scheme, but have long been endemic in the UK immigration system. The welcome fact that some more-skilled and middle-income non-EU migrants can now escape them does not alter the continuing ‘hostile environment’ for less-skilled and lower-waged migrants.

The contempt that Iain Duncan Smith showed when he described eastern Europeans as “very low-value, low-skilled people” illustrates how class and ethnic hostility are intertwined. Racism mainly affects those who are economically and socially weak and that aspect of immigration policy has barely changed.

The overall character of the system is surely indicated by how it treats the most vulnerable people it deals with: it is the detention centres and deportation flights, not the easing of entry for the qualified, which point us to the fundamentals.

The idea that the rising numbers of non-EU migrants in 2022 represents the fulfilment of Vote Leave’s promises in 2016 is equally misleading.

The campaign led by Boris Johnson devised policy on the hoof as it plied for votes. It even promised that EU citizens in the UK would be “treated no less favourably than they are at present” – a pledge that was dropped as soon as its leaders joined the post-Brexit Government. At the time, a “fairer immigration system” was a pitch for ethnic-minority votes, without policy substance – if it meant anything, it was the reduction of EU migrants’ rights to those of non-EU migrants. 

The idea that Vote Leave, prioritising ‘control’, avoided David Cameron’s mistake of committing to a numerical reduction in migration is also not borne out by the evidence.

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Vote Leave excoriated Cameron for not fulfilling his pledge, and the very statement by Boris Johnson which Portes cites in his ConservativeHome article complained that “we cannot stop millions of unskilled people coming here from the EU”. Alleging that the British public’s “generosity [had] been abused” by migrants, it warned that backing Remain would be voting for this large-scale immigration “not only to continue but to get worse”.

Thus the xenophobia which Portes sees as an ‘undercurrent’ was actually at the heart of the Leave campaign.

Dominic Cummings, realising that Brexit ‘benefits’ like independent trade deals would hardly appeal to its target electorate, orchestrated a billion-message, targeted Facebook campaign, scaring voters with shouty threats of millions of migrants, including those from Turkey, about to come to the UK – not to mention a crudely racist TV election broadcast. This was all reinforced by the right-wing newspapers’ campaigns, closely synchronised with Vote Leave’s, which often presented immigration as the problem.

Vote Leave’s racist thrust produced a surge in hate crime against Europeans, ethnic minorities and gay people which marred the campaign and its aftermath, as well as the Conservative consensus that restricting immigration was the red line of Brexit, whatever its consequences for the UK’s relationship membership of the Single Market (and hence for the economy).

This motivated not only Theresa May’s but also Johnson’s commitment to a hard nationalist Brexit, which in turn drove away European workers and helped cause the current labour crises.

It is these trends which, as Sunder Katwala puts it, have led post-2019 policy choices to “reflect pragmatic attitudes on visas for work and study”. These dynamics explain change rather better than an originalist interpretation which assumes that Johnson and his acolytes were seeking to align policy with historic propaganda.

It was this Brexit Conservative consensus on reducing immigration numbers that MP Neil O’Brien evoked in his recent ConservativeHome article. Portes sees the position as out of touch with public opinion, among whom positive attitudes towards immigration have “been trending… slowly but steadily, for a decade’”.

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He is right about the recent trend, but ignores the growth in hostility to immigration which peaked with the 2016 EU Referendum. If this has diminished, it has not gone away. Even a recent British Future survey often cited to support the softening thesis showed that 45% of respondents still wanted immigration reduced, and that this view was stronger among Conservative voters. Tory politicians seeking to shore up their core electorate could still have plausible reasons to pursue immigration reductions.

Indeed, while public opinion has veered in a positive direction, it remains malleable.

Support for reducing migration numbers peaked after years of incessant press and UKIP campaigning on the issue, and its decline reflects the relative absence of that campaigning in recent years. Yet its underlying racism remains potent, especially in the campaign against people crossing the Channel, which has been provoked by the familiar combination of Nigel Farage and the right-wing tabloids.

Conservative attempts to assuage this hostility – which have already produced the Rwanda scheme – could easily broaden into wider racist anti-immigration politics as the politics of this autumn’s crisis become more feverish.

Even Rachel Wolf, co-author of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, now warns that the failure to address the real issues facing the UK in the leadership campaign “makes it much more likely that these people are going to be susceptible to populist, really populist, politics”. 

If liberals try to push the positive immigration trends further, as Portes rightly argues we must, we are unlikely to be pushing at an open door. Rather, it is all too likely that powerful forces will be pushing in the opposite direction. Real reform of the immigration system depends on a political struggle which has a long way to go.

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