Brexit has not only failed to deliver on its promise of reducing immigration and controlling borders, but it has also made the immigration issue worse and more difficult to manage. The government’s chaotic and ineffective immigration policies, such as the Rwanda policy, have only added to the problem.

O ne of the reasons why there is still any debate about whether Brexit is a success or a failure is because what Brexit meant and what it was supposed to achieve were so obscure, and were made deliberately obscure by those who campaigned for it.

The two things are linked, of course: there is no checklist against which we can evaluate Brexit as a policy because it was only by allowing Brexit to have multiple meanings that enough people could be persuaded to vote for it.

The fact that winning the referendum was only possible by not defining what was being voted for lies at the heart of almost all the trauma that has followed, most especially the protracted political agony over agreeing what it was going to mean in practice. Last week, that was vividly illustrated by the government’s panicky new tightening of immigration criteria in response to the latest annual net migration figures and, then, by the latest, still ongoing, twists in its ‘Rwanda policy’ fiasco. But before coming to these events, it’s worth thinking about what preceded them.

Immigration control: a Brexit promise kept?

For well over a year now, Professor Jonathan Portes, one of the leading experts on the economics of migration, has been making the point that immigration policy is one of the very few areas where Brexit has delivered its promises. What he meant was that Vote Leave, unlike successive Tory governments, had never proposed any particular level or limit for immigration. Brexit had simply promised to give the UK control over setting the criteria for the entirety of its immigration policy, rather than just over immigration from non-EU countries, thus deciding for itself how many and what type of immigrants it needed. Wasn’t this exactly what Brexiters, including Nigel Farage, had demanded for years when championing an ‘Aussie-style points-based system’?

So here it was, and what it turned out to mean was just as high, or even higher, levels of immigration than before Brexit. And that was driven by choice and necessity. To give one important example, when the UK began setting its own immigration policy at the end of the Transition Period, it initially only allowed ‘senior care workers’ to be eligible for work visas. Then, in response to the worsening crisis in staffing social care, in February 2022 eligibility was extended to all grades of care workers. This, and the, on average, one dependant each care worker brought with them, was one of the main drivers of the high number of work-related visas issued in the latest figures. But it didn’t happen through carelessness or ‘losing control of our borders’: as with the rest of the work visa system, it happened as a deliberate choice in the face of a pressing need.

Post-Brexit control of immigration is not just about numbers. It has also meant a major change in the composition of immigration in that it is now much more heavily weighted towards non-EU countries than before. That, too, was in line with what Brexiters had called for and promised, including, again, Nigel Farage, when they fulminated against the unfairness of the situation where it was far easier for an EU citizen to work and live in the UK than for those from elsewhere in the world, especially the Commonwealth countries.

Indeed one strand of the leave campaign was aimed directly at minority ethnic groups, raising the grievance that their relatives faced so many hurdles in joining them whereas EU citizens faced, effectively, none. Thus the Vote Leave campaign produced leaflets in Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi urging that leaving the EU “would help to stem the flow of Eastern Europeans into the UK – allowing more incomers from Commonwealth countries to take their place”. Some Brexiters, such as the Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski, even argued that EU Freedom of Movement rules were “racist”, and that “whether Indian or Romanian you should be treated the same”.

Or a Brexit promise broken?

So, in all of these ways, Portes and others have been quite justified in saying that Brexit really has delivered on its promises about immigration. But, of course, as they are no doubt well aware, they are also being cute. For there can be no doubt that many, perhaps even most, leave voters wanted and expected Brexit to mean immigration levels would reduce, and that by ‘control of our borders’ they meant, and thought Brexit campaigners meant, control in order to reduce immigration, not simply control regardless of how it was used.

Since the referendum, some Brexiters, including Boris Johnson, have sought to claim that immigration wasn’t really at issue, so much as the ‘principle’ of sovereignty. However, polls immediately after the referendum showed, yes, that for 49% of leave voters “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK” (which can be taken to mean ‘sovereignty’) was their main motivation, but, even so, immigration control was the main motivation for 33% of them. In any case, the two motivations are likely to be intimately associated, with ‘sovereignty’, at least for some, likely to be mainly about, or at least to include, border control. Whatever may now be said, sovereignty was not an abstract principle but seen as a means to enact certain policies, including reducing immigration.

In all, it is hard to deny that many leavers, and surely enough of them to have made a decisive difference to the referendum outcome, thought, like this voter from Barnsley interviewed by Channel 4 News the day afterwards, that: “It’s all about immigration. It’s not about trade, or Europe, or anything like that. It’s all about immigration”. What may have been less common, but surely not that unusual, is what he went on to say, which caused the clip to attract much attention and some mockery: “It’s to stop Muslims coming into this country. It’s as simple as that.” He then went on: “The movement of people in Europe, fair enough but not from Africa, Syria, Iraq or anywhere else.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that, including the way it appears to approve of EU freedom of movement and, at least, the implication that, although immigrants from the EU might well be Muslims and those from outside the EU might well not be, this kind of voter is probably not likely to see the post-Brexit increase in non-EU immigration as having delivered what he wanted from Brexit. That would be consistent with research data showing that all voters, whether leave or remain, and regardless of social class or age, are more positive about EU immigrants than non-EU immigrants. Or, let’s be blunt, voters like ‘Barnsley man’ object far more to black and brown immigrants than they do to white immigrants.

Beyond that, there is a clear implication that for him, and it is hard to believe he was unusual in this respect, the issue of immigration was bound up with, and perhaps identical to, that of refugees and asylum seekers. If so, it is hardly surprising since the (unofficial) Leave.EU campaign, most notoriously with Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, deliberately and explicitly conflated these issues. But so, too, did the supposedly more ‘respectable’ Vote Leave campaign, even if in more ‘genteel’ terms.

Thus just before the referendum, Boris Johnson issued a statement which began by waxing lyrical about how “pro-immigration” he was but – whenever Brexiters say something positive about immigration it’s always the prelude to a ‘but’ – bemoaning freedom of movement, along with the claim that “the rogue European Court now controls not just immigration policy but how we implement asylum policy under the Charter of Fundamental Rights.” Like the Barnsley voter, he even mentions Syria and Iraq, in an implicit reference to the supposed possibility of Turkish accession to the EU.

The conflation of immigration and asylum

Against this background, what is happening with immigration policy now is hardly surprising. It may have seemed that Brexit had largely removed immigration from public concern and political attention. Between June 2015 and July 2016 ‘Immigration and Asylum’ topped the public’s list of the three most important issues facing the country, peaking at 71% in September 2015 – presumably in response to the European ‘migrant crisis’ – and still 56% at the time of the referendum. It then steadily fell to being named by just 14% as a top-three issue in April 2020 before gradually rising again so that 40% now see it as a top-three issue, the highest score apart from ‘the economy’ and ‘health’.

But even that survey question is part of the problem. Immigration and asylum are not the same thing, and if they are conflated in the public mind then it is because they are conflated by political leaders. Not only that, but it is highly likely that growing public perception of ‘Immigration and Asylum’ being a problem issue is to do with the further conflation between asylum-seeking and ‘illegal’ (i.e., irregular) asylum-seeking, and especially the ‘small boats’, which itself is different from, though often conflated with, ‘illegal immigration’.

Matters are further confused, and public understanding confounded, by the way that the headline figures for immigration agglomerate the numbers for work visas and their dependants, student visas and their dependants, asylum seekers and, which is different again, refugees. Indeed, one reason for the recent spike in aggregate figures is the arrival of those fleeing war in Ukraine and tyranny in Hong Kong, something which has strong public support and also contributes to advancing the UK’s geo-political interests.

It is in this sense that last week’s government clampdown on immigration was panicky. Far from being a calm, rational assessment by a sovereign nation of what controls are needed in the national interest, economic and otherwise – the supposed promise of Brexit Global Britain – it was a rushed botch driven by Sunak’s fear of the Reform Party vote and of his NatCon backbenchers.

The result is a ‘five-point plan’ (is there any other sort?) which will hobble British businessesdamage the ‘world-class universities’ the Tories so often boast of and which are themselves one of the country’s most successful service exporters, exacerbate the crisis in social care, and, most cruelly of all, make international marriages something only available to the well-off (though the latter seems so badly thought out it’s quite likely to be dropped). What makes this plan all the more lamentable is that, for all the damage it will do, it almost certainly won’t even deliver a fillip to the Tory standing in the opinion polls. Within hours, Richard Tice, the notional leader of Farage’s Reform Party company, had denounced it, with yawn-inducing predictability, as a “betrayal”.

It certainly won’t slake the unquenchable thirst of the Tory populists for even tighter immigration controls, and for derogation from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and, again, that was set up by the dishonesty of the Brexit campaign. For, in advocating freedom from, as Johnson put it, “the rogue European Court”, the Brexiters deliberately conflated the European Court of Justice (ECJ) with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), which adjudicates the ECHR, and is quite separate from the EU. Certainly, prior to the referendum, every single time I heard leave-inclined voters give an example of EU Courts or EU law over-riding Britain’s Parliament or legal system it was something relating to the ECHR and ECtHR (and, often, some garbled version of it, such as that illegal immigrants couldn’t be deported if they had a pet cat).

Brexit pain with no Brexit gain

So we’ve gone through all the pain of Brexit, which was supposed to settle the immigration issue, for this – well, what should we call it? Grotesque stupidity and vileness are as good words as any. The tragedy is that in the process we have lost EU freedom of movement (FOM), and it is a tragedy which has many parts. One is simply economic. FOM is a highly flexible, non-bureaucratic way of matching jobs and workers. But FOM did so much more than that, enabling study, retirement, and romantic and family relationships. This meant that FOM wasn’t just an economic exchange, which ought to matter especially to those who profess to be concerned that immigration damages ‘community cohesion’.

We lost all this partly because of the conflation of FOM with asylum seekers and refugees, and partly for two deeper, and deeply related, reasons. One was the persistent failure of Brexiters to understand the difference between the Single Market and a Free Trade Agreement. In brief, this meant that they thought that FOM was just some kind of ‘ideological’ add-on by the EU, whereas in fact it is a central and irreducible component, making the four freedoms of the single market indivisible. Indeed, this failure of understanding was not confined to Brexiters, as shown by an interesting insider account of the referendum campaign, written by Daniel Korski, formerly Deputy Director of David Cameron’s Policy Unit. He records the frustration during the pre-referendum re-negotiation with the EU:

“Nor would our counterparts in Europe acknowledge that the EU’s four freedoms are very much divisible. A country can reduce tariffs and remove trade barriers and still maintain restrictions on which foreigners are allowed to enter the country. This is what the United States has done since World War II, with NAFTA being the best example.” 

This ignorance came in time to inform the fantasy that a Free Trade Agreement could be a substitute for single market membership, but it had another consequence. Understood as a single market, it makes no more sense to talk about immigration between member countries than it does to do so between counties in Britain. This was alluded to by Sir Ivan Rogers in his February 2017 evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee (p.10):

“They [the rest of the EU] genuinely do not understand a UK debate in which the two are conflated at all. They do not understand why a government would have a migration target covering migration from within the European Union, which for other people is not migration. They do not call it migration; they do not call it immigration. They call it free movement… [t]hey said, “But one is migration, which is external to the European Union, and the other is free movement of people, which is not at all the same thing.”

These two aspects of failing to understand the meaning of a single market are linked in resting on a simplistic understanding of borders. In relation to trade, that led to seeing the elimination of tariffs, rather than cross-border regulation, as being the main issue, and an associated mental model of trade as the one-time movement of finished goods from one country to another, thus ignoring modern cross-border supply chains as well as services trade. Similarly, immigration was seen as being a kind of mechanistic one-time move from living in one country to another, as well as being a solely economic transaction.

In fact, although freedom of movement of workers has been a concept going back to the original provisions of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and is very much associated with what was the common market, it has evolved to become a freedom of movement of persons for EU citizens. At all events, what FOM allowed in practice was not just economic flexibility but a huge personal flexibility whereby, for example, a young person might go to another country for a few years to work or study, with no need or intention to settle there permanently. Or a couple comprising different nationalities but both holding EU citizenship could move between their respective countries of birth, or to any other EU country, at different times according not just to their jobs but, say, their children’s education or to look after their parents. It is that richness of interchange that the UK has deprived itself of and, of course, deprived its own citizens of.

Small boat psychosis

Meanwhile, the festering grievance about ‘illegal migrants’ has grown since Brexit, starting with the confected outrage and alarmism about the ‘small boats’ whipped up initially by Farage to become an almost incontrollable Tory psychosis. Psychosis may seem like a strong word, but I think it is apt when the former Home Secretary Suella Braverman talks, as she did last week, of “the crisis … of mass uncontrolled illegal immigration … pouring into our country … break[ing] in to Britain … putting unsustainable pressure on public finances and public services … jeopardising national security ...”

Such hyperbolic language is completely disproportionate to the scale of what is actually happening. And it is not just Braverman. When Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick resigned last week, he wrote of how “the small boats crisis is a national emergency that is doing untold damage to our country”, and in referring to the Rwanda Bill as “emergency legislation”, needed because a “reasonable country” has been pushed to the limits of its patience, Sunak is complicit in the psychosis.

In fact, since 2018, about 100,000 people have made the ‘small boat crossings’, peaking at about 46,000 in 2022 and numbering just over 27,000 this year (as at 13 November 2023). By international standards, those are not huge figures and they certainly don’t constitute “a national emergency” in any sensible meaning of the term. The crisis, if there is one, is in the government’s inability to undertake the basic administrative task of creating a fair and rapid claims-processing system, and its dogmatic refusal to create adequate safe routes for claims to be made. Moreover, the small boat crossings are, at least in part, a problem which has been exacerbated by Brexit and, certainly, they are evidence that the Brexiter claim that leaving the EU would reduce or eliminate such problems was a lie.

Within this context, the Rwanda policy over which Jenrick resigned, and which may now conceivably bring Sunak’s government down, is especially mad. For one thing, even if it were ever implemented, it would have only the tiniest impact on the processing of asylum claims, and little, possibly no, impact on small boat numbers. For another, it shows a distinctly Brexitist logic, most ludicrously in the idea that passing a law which declares that Rwanda is a safe country will make it a safe country – the legislation is actually called the Safety of Rwanda Bill – the latest example of the idea that falsity can be willed into becoming truth.

More ominously, it is the latest and by far the most serious example of how Brexit has led the UK into seeing international law as something of no account, at least for itself, an aspect of Brexitism which first emerged with the proposal to break international law with the Internal Market Bill. Indeed, its notable that Jenrick, who once practised as a solicitor, resigned because the latest Rwanda legislation did not go far enough in discarding international law. Meanwhile, in perhaps the most extraordinary twist so far, the Rwandan government has issued a statement suggesting it might pull out of the whole deal if it involves the UK being in breach of international law!

Brexit’s utter failure

Any lingering hope that Brexit would finally lay to bed all the fear and panic about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’ must surely now be dead. Instead, it lives on in ever-more vicious and hysterical ways. The Brexiters said that all they wanted was to control who came to the UK, but that was a lie. They said that they just wanted to ensure that only those with the skills needed to contribute to the economy, but that was a lie.

As with every other Brexiter demand, whatever they are given they always say it hasn’t been done in the right way and they always, always want more. On asylum policy, Sunak is just the latest Tory Prime Minister to find that even adopting totally unworkable and abhorrent policies will not placate them. It will never be enough to be ‘true Brexit’ or ‘true Conservatism’, though he has added to his woes by being politically unskilled enough to tie his fate to making an unworkable policy work.

In 2017, Dominic Cummings said:

“The single most important reason, really, for why I wanted to get out of the EU is I think that it will drain the poison of a lot of political debates … UKIP and Nigel Farage would be finished … Once there’s democratic control of immigration policy, immigration will go back to being a second- or third-order issue.”

This idea, still sometimes expressed by well-meaning liberals, that Brexit spiked the guns of far-right and populist politics in Britain, defusing its demands by attending to its grievances, has proved utterly false. On the contrary, and not just in relation to immigration and asylum, it has made such politics mainstream.

In this, as in every other way, Brexit has utterly failed.

PMP Magazine


Text: This piece was first published in Brexit & Beyond and re-published in PMP Magazine on 12 December 2023 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Dreamstime/Kiosea39.

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