In his excellent recent article ‘Who should decide about immigration’, Radix contributor Renaud Giraud asks how, in a democracy, we should decide about who has a right to migrate to our country.
In the current intense debate in the UK about customs union, partnership, max fac, max fac plus and any variants therefore, Conservative (and other) politicians are conveniently kicking into the ever longer grass the actual, emotive question that seems to have won the democratic vote for Brexit: immigration.
A recent Opinium survey concluded that for Leave voters migration remains the key issue: “reducing immigration being a key driver of making Brexit worth doing and leaving the Single Market or even a recession with significant job losses not offsetting this”. For the winning side, reducing immigration matters more than anything else.
Of course, settling the question of the customs relationship with the EU also makes certain assumptions about the UK’s migration policy post-Brexit. Remaining somehow within the single market (even if only for goods) is likely to assume that Britain will respect in some way free movement of labour (a “mobility framework” has already been proposed).
And free movement for EU nationals is the one thing the current government can’t really allow, given the apparent motivations of most Leave voters, who won the democratic referendum on Brexit. True, this applies more to older voters than younger, according to the survey, and more to Conservative than Labour voters, but since the administration is Conservative and preserved in government mostly by older voters….
A senior, unnamed Cabinet figure hit the nail on the head last week when he said that, if the Chequers meeting of the 6 July did not discuss the wider issues around immigration as well as customs, “we will all be back at Chequers in September”.
He was referring to the publication (possibly) in September of the government’s long overdue policy on immigration post-Brexit. If the customs debate is heated, the immigration debate will be savage, because it is about votes at the next election.
If, on the one hand, “the people” have been told that Britain can significantly cut immigration through Brexit and still maintain its economic standing, but the reality is that the opposite is true, then which politician will dare to tell the truth? Especially when there are marginal constituencies in “leave” areas to be won and lost? Which politician will be prepared to admit that there is a trade-off, and be prepared to follow the democratic will for lower immigration whilst accepting the negative economic impact?
Some cabinet ministers are quietly arguing the case for a sensible migration policy in their particular areas, such as healthcare and agriculture, to ensure enough labour is available post-Brexit. Free trade supporting Brexiteers are largely keeping quiet about migration because they know that “global Britain” based on free trade deals will also mean significant migration. But we have no idea what the government’s policy will be overall. Probably because the government doesn’t actually have a clear policy yet.
Never has there been a better time for a rational, balanced debate on migration to Britain, whether from the EU or elsewhere: migration both for skilled positions where British labour simply isn’t sufficient (I am sure no one will argue with the appointment of a Hungarian urologist if there aren’t enough British urologists for an ageing population in a particular city) and for less skilled roles where British labour is not in sufficient supply (hence the call for seasonal foreign workers to pick Britain’s fruit..).
The debate should be rational economically, and sensitive emotionally: not pandering to racism or xenophobia, but understanding that, as I have previously argued on this site, assimilation of migrants is far more important than “the numbers game” the Conservative government has foolishly subscribed to.
One unassimilated, unhappy radicalised migrant poses a much greater problem than a thousand hard-working migrants who are happy to be here. It is time to end the current “hostile” environment to migrants which the current Prime Minister encouraged at the Home Office and which her likely successor is trying to dismantle.
The government will probably try to square a circle of reduced migration and sectoral labour supply needs in its policy document in September – the “party of business” that knows full well it was immigration that was the key to the Brexit vote.
I suspect they will indeed all be back at Chequers in the autumn.