I don’t think it’s something immigrants can welcome. I think the main reason that we’re heading towards a hard Brexit – the reason that Theresa May is saying that the UK is going to leave the single market – is that they don’t want to accept free movement, and that’s a red line. That, of course, is only relevant in the context of the EU to EU citizens, but the fact that the prime minister is willing to sacrifice some economic stability and security in order to bring down immigration demonstrates that this is not only about EU migrants, but about immigrants as a whole. Let’s not forget that the government target of reducing immigration to 100,000 immigrants per year – which is not only undeliverable and, I would argue, one of the most foolish political promises ever made – still hasn’t been dropped. And even if you discount all the EU migrants that come to the UK every year, and just look at non-EU migrants, it still won’t be met.
This idea was pushed around during the Brexit referendum that by ending free movement, the UK would somehow have a more fair immigration system for other people from around the world. It’s nonsense. It was driven by a desire to bring down immigration – and hand in hand with that comes the changing atmosphere in the UK, which many immigrants felt, where they no longer feel welcome in the country, where their contributions haven’t been part of the mainstream debate.
“The idea was pushed around during the Brexit referendum that by ending free movement, the UK would have a more fair immigration system for other people from around the world. It’s nonsense.”
Those tensions have always been underlying. The UK is a country where immigration has been a feature of life for many decades – and for a long time the political climate hasn’t allowed people who might have had a problem with that to voice those opinions. But if you look at the headlines in the tabloid press in the last few years, where they keep shouting to British citizens that they’re under attack, that their way of life is being threatened by The Other, you can’t be surprised when people start believing it. That’s not to say that there aren’t some relevant concerns which might have led to this increased suspicion and anxiety – about strains on public services – but rather than blaming immigrants for that, I’d argue that it’s a failure of government policy.
The UK has traditionally been very hospitable to immigration. When the eastern European states joined the EU in 2004, it was the UK that decided not to have any transitional controls in place. The Tony Blair government at the time promised that some 10,000 people would come, and instead there’s a much larger community of Poles in the UK. So of course people start to lose faith in the government’s ability to predict or control these things. In the context of Brexit, the free movement from the EU certainly changed the public mood. That’s not to say these immigrants didn’t make a valuable contribution to the economy, but when the pace of change is that quick, then people will have issues, especially about their own identity and what it means for their country.
After Brexit, I think Britain will become a less hospitable place for immigrants. For all the talk from the government about how Britain will take the best and the brightest from around the world, there’s this huge divide among Brexiteers. There are some – and they’re a minority – who wanted Brexit precisely for those reasons, so the UK could become more liberal and open and like a European version of Singapore. But there are more who are protectionists – who wanted to leave the EU because of immigration, who want to shut down the country. Immigration is the reason the UK is leaving the single market.