Our government (or at least most of the cabinet) seems to be committed to a 'hard' brexit - leaving the customs union and single market. This is despite the free trade area having been seen by a previous generation of Conservatives (including Margaret Thatcher) as a major achievement of the EU. The decision to leave the single market is a political decision, based on the assumption that the key reason for people voting 'leave' was immigration, and that it can't be controlled by staying in.
So I thought it would be interesting to revisit the issue of immigration to check the facts. Concerns about immigration are often dismissed as xenophobia or racism. There is no doubt people with those prejudices strongly object to immigration, and tabloids have done much to encourage very negative views of those who have come to our country for work or refuge.
Personally I'm not convinced all of the 51.9% who voted 'leave' did so for concerns about immigration. Several left-leaning friends of mine voted that way for very different reasons. But the issue needs to be addressed in the current context, so I thought it would be more useful and interesting to look at the facts, as far as that is possible, and see what conclusion could be drawn. Is immigration uncontrolled, and is that the EU's fault?
Just before the June 2016 referendum, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published statistics which fed into the brexit debate. You can find the official data here. It showed the net long-term migration figure to be 333,000. A concern regularly raised was that this level was seen as unsustainable in the medium and long term, and the blame was laid at the feet of the EU, as free movement is part of the deal for being in the single market.
I learned a few things from the report:
- The net migration figure is the difference between those coming into the country to stay and those leaving to live abroad. That means even if the figures balanced, there would still be immigration, assuming other people were still emigrating. Xenophobes and racists would still have to encounter new people from other countries in their communities, even at a net figure of zero. [Nigel Farage wanted a net figure in the 10s of thousands].
- The figures are estimates, not actually recorded entries and departures.
- Net migration from the EU was 184,000, non-EU was 188,000. totalling 372,000. Net migration of British citizens was -39,000, making the total 333,000.
- Long-term immigration for study was 167,000. Overseas students pay substantial university fees, and make a significant contribution to the economy.
- Immigration from the EU (270,000) and immigration from outside the EU (277,000) are very similar. We'll come back to EU immigration, but the UK has full control over non-EU immigration and could stop it tomorrow. However, that would impact our relationships with the US, China, Canada, Australia, India etc. (Future trade deals may require the UK to be more generous with visas for these countries). The EU therefore contributes about 50% of total immigration, and about half of that comes from the original western European member states, such as Ireland, France and Germany.
On that latter point, it's becoming clear that the UK will continue to need workers from overseas - skilled and unskilled. Unemployment is the lowest it has been since the mid-1970s, so the crude prejudice often stated as "they are taking our jobs" just doesn't hold water. However, it may well be the case that to find work, UK-born people will need to retrain and move area - not always easy, especially with national variations in house prices. Meanwhile employers ranging from the NHS to car companies, from builders to fruit and vegetable farmers still rely on migrant workers for the foreseeable future.
None of this has even begun to address the very real need of refugees and asylum seekers. The rhetoric would suggest this is a large figure, but for the period in this report, it was 41,563. For comparison that's less than half the figure for 2002. Even the politicians with the most benign view of immigration tend to focus on what the UK gets out of it - skills, economic activity, etc. However, the other dimension is that there are people who need somewhere to go and to live. No country has limitless capacity, but we can all play our part in offering compassion, hospitality and refuge. And if politicians are frightened of this flow of people becoming overwhelming, then their task is to build peace, provide generous aid and development budgets, and challenge all the other wealthier countries of the globe to take their share of the responsibility and burden.
I grew up in an era when older relatives said things along the lines of "Enoch Powell was right" and various degrees of racist terms were openly used in conversations everywhere. I still remember taking someone on when I was a teenager because they had described their doctor as "Indian, [pause] but he was good." We'll need to set aside the important question of which specific nation from the subcontinent the doctor actually came from (the speaker didn't know). The note of surprise that this fully qualified doctor was perfectly able to do his job revealed all about that person's prejudices with regard to Asian heritage medical professionals.
In my lifetime, I've seen those prejudices expressed less and less, although I have always suspected that plenty lurked under the surface of white British society. In the turmoil of the last year or so politically, they seem to be alive and thriving, and surfacing in political discourse. It is too much to hope that xenophobia and even racism won't infect debates about immigration policy - social media is already full of that poison. However, I can still hope that politicians might be brave enough ignore those shrill and sometimes angry voices, and might instead weigh carefully what it means to be an open, free and generous spirited nation in our world today.
For an analysis of the most current migration figures, see BBC Reality Check for a breakdown of EU / non-EU migration and the reasons people come to the UK.