How Brexit offers a surprising opportunity for a new immigration consensus

Posted on 4 March 2017

A speech by Sunder Katwala at the Conservative Progress ‘Believe in the UK: a positive post-Brexit vision‘ conference

Take Back Control’ was the slogan which helped Vote Leave to win a majority of the vote in last June’s referendum. ‘Global Britain’ was the core theme of the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in December, ahead of the historic Article 50 notification this month.

It is often suggested that these two most prominent slogans reflect a core tension over Brexit. It is easy to see why. One sounds like the promise of more protection, and the other more change. The 52% majority vote for Leave included voters with differing perspectives – from contrasting poles of an ‘open versus closed’ debate.

So the Government will now need to show how these ideas can be reconciled if it is to make a success of Brexit. That is thought to be especially difficult on immigration, the most polarising issue of all in the referendum.

So that is the challenge I want to address this afternoon. Can the desire for more control be combined with the aim that Britain will remain globally-engaged, in a common ground approach to post-Brexit immigration?

This will be challenging – but I want to set out why we should not regard it as impossible.

Indeed, I want to argue that finding this common ground on immigration could be the key to finally moving the Brexit debate beyond the referendum trenches of 2016, so we start a new ‘Brexit Together’ phase of the debate, which challenges both the 52% and the 48% to find a shared stake in the future choices we need to make.

A loss of public confidence in governments

Brexit is a reset moment for immigration policy in Britain – because the leave vote reflected a significant loss of public confidence in how successive governments have managed migration over the last two decades.

The Labour governments failed to predict, prepare for or respond effectively to the largest migration wave in British history after the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004.

Their Conservative-led successors pledged to reduce the net migration numbers, yet they rose instead, so every quarter’s immigration statistics generated yet more headlines about a promise the government could not keep.

The public now expect to see some significant changes to immigration policy after Brexit. But we should be clear too that most people blame the politicians not migrants themselves. Britain is not a nation of xenophobes. People are sceptical about the pace and scale of immigration – while they recognise the gains that managed migration brings to Britain.

 

What next after Brexit: what does the British public think?

So there is a public desire for more control over immigration – but not for an indiscriminate immigration crackdown, and certainly not for xenophobic mistreatment of Europeans who have come to Britain. British Future’s post-referendum research does capture very clearly that the public combines frustration with the status quo with a moderate, pragmatic and nuanced mix of views about how to manage migration after Brexit.

84 per cent believe European nationals in Britain must remain welcome here.
The 3 million European nationals living in Britain urgently need to receive a clear guarantee of the right to settle and stay, to end the anxiety and uncertainty they face. That is a common ground view across both sides of the referendum. It is very clear that many people who don’t feel our government managed the impacts of immigration properly also like the Polish or Spanish neighbours, colleagues or fellow-parents they may have met at work or at the school-gate, and recognise that the Europeans who have come to Britain are not just hard-working contributors to our economy but now part of British society too. So the idiotic racist fringe, with their deluded belief that 17 million people voted to send people home, need to be put firmly back in their box by all of us.

A clear two-thirds majority would like to see fewer unskilled workers in future.
Low-skilled immigration from Europe is an area where people expect change, so that Britain can control the pace and scale of low- and semi-skilled migration. However, consent for low- and semi-skilled immigration varies varies considerably across sectors: only one in four would cut the number coming to work in care homes, while half would reduce numbers coming to work in hospitality.

How far is it sensible for government policy to differentiate between different sectors of the economy?

Only a fifth of people want to cut skilled or student migration; more would prefer the numbers of migrant nurses, doctors and scientists to increase, and most are content with current levels.
A responsive and popular migration policy might reflect the broad popularity of student and skilled migration. Should the government continue to target net migration as a whole – or do we need a less ‘one size fits all’ approach after Brexit? And how could our immigration policies and national skills strategies be more closely aligned?

Seven out of ten people do want to maintain our tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees too.
Britain’s commitment in ratifying the Refugee Convention was made by Winston Churchill’s government in 1951 – decades before we joined the European Union – and has been maintained by every government since. So most people certainly expect the idea of ‘Global Britain’ to mean maintaining our principle and tradition of refugee protection after Brexit too.

 

How a new common ground consensus would challenge both wings of the immigration debate

So there is an opportunity for a new pragmatic consensus – but that would present new challenges to both sides of our traditional immigration argument.

Those who want to defend the economic and social gains which migration has brought to Britain need to rise to the challenge of rebuilding public confidence in it – including paying more attention to practical approaches to properly manage the impacts of the migration that we choose to keep, to promote successful integration in our country.

And those who are sceptical about the scale and pace of immigration need to now move beyond critiquing past failures – to come up with workable proposals to reduce immigration, in ways that do recognise and meet the needs of our economy and public services.

At the same time this challenge, to both wings of our polarised immigration debate, would also reflect the common ground in public opinion – because most people do not see immigration as a simple, binary ‘for or against’, ‘open or closed’ issue.

Committed Remain and the committed Leave voters certainly saw immigration differently. The different political priorities across the referendum campaign – particularly between the single market and immigration control – reflected that.

What is underestimated is the common ground which also exists between the majority of Leave and Remain voters too. The less partisan halves of each of the 16 million and the 17 million vote coalitions – those people on both sides who spent the final months of the referendum campaign actually deciding which way to vote – have rather more in common with each other than with the restless social media keyboard warriors on the side they ended up supporting.

That explains why the view that Brexit could be a reset moment on immigration is not one held by the 52% alone – but actually a view shared by most on both sides. You could sum up this consensus view in an argument that British Future put to a public attitudes survey very soon after the referendum result, to find out how many people thought this vision struck the right note:

‘Immigration brings pressures as well as gains and our decision to leave the EU gives us a chance to change the system. What we need now is a sensible policy to manage immigration so we control who comes here but still keep the immigration that’s good for our economy and society, and maintains our tradition of offering sanctuary to refugees who need our protection’

Three-quarters of people agree with that and only 8% oppose it – a common ground consensus which spans 84% of Leave and Conservative voters, and which found 69% of those who voted for Remain endorsing a statement backed by eight-out-of-ten Ukip voters.

Turning that broadly shared aspiration for the goals of a post-Brexit immigration policy into a workable policy that makes economic and political sense will obviously be much more challenging – but a government which could show that its post-Brexit immigration reforms had struck that pragmatic balance could speak to a broad common ground majority –bridging the referendum divide.

What Britain’s post-Brexit immigration system might look like in practice is a new debate – which is only just beginning. If we are going to get this right, the referendum can’t mark the end of public engagement into the shaping of immigration policy.

That’s why British Future is currently engaged in conducting one of the largest ever exercises in public engagement – the National Conversation on Immigration, going to 60 towns, villages and cities, across every region and nation of the UK, along with Hope Not Hate, holding citizens’ panels and events with policy stakeholders in each location. Our National Conversation findings about how the public see the choices and challenges ahead will inform the Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into how to shape an immigration policy that can secure public confidence.

We have just begun last month so we don’t know what we will find out. We have already been to Bedford and Bradford, to March in the Cambridgeshire Fens, and this week to North Tyneside’s Whitley Bay and to Aberdeen. This month, we will hear views in Trowbridge and Enfield. Already it is clear that there are very distinct experiences of immigration and integration, as well as common concerns about what government needs to get right.

So I hope to discover some new ideas for migration and integration over the year ahead – but in the meantime I wanted to set out some of my current thinking about how to approach both EU and non-EU migration post-Brexit.

After free movement: a Global Britain approach to migration and trade deals

The Prime Minister and Home Secretary are clear that ‘free movement as we know it’ will end after Brexit.

What nobody knows yet is whether that means that we should have similar rules for European and non-EU migrants to Britain.

After Brexit, some have proposed that a Global Britain approach would be based on a nationality-blind system: should the ‘same rules for everyone’ be a principle of the new immigration system?

The fairness intuition in favour of that approach has a broad appeal. Why should an immigration system automatically prefer an unskilled worker from Spain or Bulgaria to somebody with more skills from India? In the other EU member states, the explanation ‘because we are European’ would be enough of an explanation, but that doesn’t feel fair to most people in Britain, because there is a much lower level of European identity here than in each of the other EU member states.

The equal treatment of people from any country is the right principle for several types of immigration. We should take refugees based on the need for protection – not refuse them because the country they are escaping can be dangerous. When a Brit wants to marry a foreigner, most people will not think the rules that apply should discriminate by nationality.

The question is whether economic migration policies need to be nationality-blind too – and I think this fails several common sense tests once you try to design a real world post-Brexit immigration system around that principle.

Here are three problems with a ‘same rules for everyone’ rule.

Firstly, we have never had such a policy in the UK – and I doubt we ever will have. What very few people notice that almost nobody who espouses a nationality-blind principle for post-Brexit migration policy ever actually sticks consistently to it. No mainstream politician has called for immigration controls for Irish citizens after Brexit. If the principle becomes ‘we must treat every country equally – except Ireland is different’ then the principle of universal treatment has already been conceded for foreign countries that are ‘special’ to Britain.

Complaints about EU free movement feeling unfair invariably mentioned India and Pakistan, Australia and New Zealand, Canada or Caribbean countries. You will not have heard people say EU free movement was unfair to, say, Ukranians or people from Chile. So the resonant objection was rarely that it was unfair in principle to ever have different rules for any country – but that the special European rules felt unbalanced in terms of other British special relationships.

Secondly, Britain should keep visa-free travel after Brexit. This will need to be negotiated – but we should expect to succeed. After all, Britain has visa-free travel for over 50 non-EU countries and so do the Schengen zone countries. When Argentina and Tonga are on both the UK and EU lists, Britain and the EU27 should surely be able to agree this with each other too.

Again, this would breach the nationality-blind principle – but does anybody seriously propose that the only permissible choices are visa-free travel with every country or with nobody?

Thirdly, an approach which was opposed in principle to any national differentiation in immigration policy would be especially bad news for International Trade Secretary Liam Fox.

The logic would be that we would simply have to politely turn down every offer of a new skilled migration arrangement with the USA, or with Australia, or with India – on post-study leave or reciprocal opportunities – however much we thought it was a good deal, until and unless the same deal would be negotiated on a global basis with 200 other states.

It wouldn’t make sense to say that Britain shouldn’t do trade deals with anybody if we can’t do the same deal with everybody – and we shouldn’t say that we can’t make economic migrations deals in our interests unless we apply the same rules for everybody.

A Global Britain approach should be open to negotiating different immigration deals with other countries or indeed continents – if we believe they are in the national interest. But with two crucial aspects to this policy:

1. We need to make sure there is political and public consent for the migration deal that the government wants to strike. The key point here: before the government is negotiating abroad, it needs to build a strong political and public consensus at home about the migration mix that we want.

2. Having worked out what type of economic migration we want, a Global Britain strategy should make where we source that migration from part of our negotiating hand in the future trade deals we seek. So the right thing to do would be to pursue this Global Britain strategy both in our continent and worldwide – while the practical outcomes would depend on how specific trade talks went.

A ‘same rules for everyone’ rule for economic migration would not be in the national interest.

We should not tie Liam Fox’s hands when he is negotiating trade deals around the world with a ‘same rules for everywhere’ rule.

Nor should we tie the hands of the Prime Minister when she goes to Brussels seeking to negotiate the best Brexit deal for Britain.

For me, that wouldn’t be cricket. You could even say that it would risk breaking their bats before they take the crease to bat for Britain!

A new deal with Europe?

The UK government is clear it wants the closest possible comprehensive free trade deal with the EU27. So British Future has proposed a model for European migration that the UK government could put on the table in the Article 50 talks, as part of a broader UK-EU post-Brexit partnership, and which marries the principles of control and openness.

The UK should propose maintaining ‘skilled movement’ – both ways – for those with a job above an agreed skills or salary threshold.

The UK government should be clear that it will put in place controls and limits on the levels of low-skilled and semi-skilled migration – but could be willing to let EEA nationals have first option on all of the low-skilled migration that Britain has decided to seek, within those limits, if that helps to secure a tariff-free trade deal.

This is a tighter system for EU/EEA migration than free movement – but offers greater access to the UK labour market for EU citizens than if there is no deal. In that case, EU/EEA nationals’ access to the UK labour market would revert to similar rules to non-EU migration – though the Global Britain strategy could see other trade partners then strike deals which would give their citizens preferential migration access to the UK labour market over Europeans.

New deals with the Commonwealth

A successful ‘skilled movement’ deal with Europe could be supplemented by further skilled and post-study migration deals with the USA, Commonwealth countries or others, subject to political and public consent, though low-skilled, non-EU migration would remain heavily restricted, as now.

On the other hand, in the absence of an EU deal, a considerably more expansive reciprocal skilled free movement system with Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India, for those taking jobs above a skills or salary threshold, might be more attractive.

If the EU talks failed, the UK would also need a strategy to source the low-skilled and semi-skilled migration it did want: that could be a nationality-blind quotas scheme, available to European and global applicants alike, though the government could consider whether quota-based schemes with particular Commonwealth countries, or other trade or development partnerships, might supply part of the mix.

As the government embarks on the Article 50 process, it has a chance to build a new consensus on immigration.

If we can find the common ground on immigration at home, it will be in a stronger position to negotiate both in Europe and beyond, and to show that it is possible to combine the principles of control with the global engagement that post-Brexit Britain needs.

Comment