Artwork for FTWeekend Comment - issue dated 01.02.20
© Jonathan McHugh 2020

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

Post-Brexit, my rough guide to reading the new government is that it will tend leftwards on some economic issues and rightwards on questions of culture. As a potent mixture of both, immigration poses a tricky challenge. 

With the “Got Brexit Done” fridge magnets finally on sale, the issue that was so central in the 2016 referendum must now be resolved. Despite polls suggesting some cooling of concern, it would be unwise to ignore the preoccupation with identity and fairness which still simmers in parts of England that helped propel Boris Johnson to victory in December’s general election. 

This government will be more liberal on immigration than many anticipate. Despite presiding over a Leave campaign shot through with xenophobic rhetoric, Mr Johnson’s instincts have always been liberal on this question. As Mayor of London he spoke proudly of his Turkish ancestry and called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants; he has repeated that call as prime minister. He has welcomed the end of EU free movement as a chance to level the playing field between all comers from all nations. Hence the new global talent visa scheme, through which the Home Office hopes to attract the best and brightest scientists; and the pledge to let foreign students stay and work for two years after graduating. 

Throwing the doors open does not guarantee a flood of pre-eminent scientists in what is a globally competitive market — and the government risks losing talent that is already in the UK unless it eases bureaucracy for existing EU citizens. But the big-hearted tone is right.

Low-skilled migration is a different matter. After the referendum I twice visited Boston in Lincolnshire, an area which saw a 460 per cent rise in immigration between 2004 and 2014, and the highest Leave vote (76 per cent). Longstanding residents complained of falling wages and rising rents, but also rising crime, altercations between different nationalities who didn’t speak English, and lengthening waits to see the doctor. There was resentment that London-based elites dismissed as prejudice what was, in fact, fear about identity and frustration about unfairness.

The 2019 election strengthened the Conservative grip on Boston. The government’s challenge now is to reduce low-skilled migration without pulling the rug of prosperity from under those same voters. Can the UK wean itself off cheap labour and if so, how quickly? Food manufacturing and agriculture have become highly dependent on eastern Europeans. Social care vacancies are set to rise, as the sector is not included in the promised National Health Service exemption to the salary threshold. To protect businesses while slowing permanent population growth, it will surely be imperative to increase the number of temporary visas, such as the Youth Mobility Scheme

Theoretically, the end of free movement should make it easier to plan local services. While never an exact science, planning was made difficult by the unpredictable interplay of free movement rights with eurozone economies, and infrequent census data. So far, however, there is no ceiling against which to plan. Mr Johnson has dropped the target, which dogged David Cameron and Theresa May, of reducing net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. That made sense: the failure to come anywhere near meeting it simply reinforced voters’ feeling that they were being ignored. But without a target, it is difficult for the government to claim that it is creating an Australian-style points system. 

The latest report from the Migration Advisory Committee observes that Tony Blair’s attempt to introduce a points system in 2008 was in fact “pointless”, because assessments for age, qualifications and experience were “ineffective or overly complex”. It recommends using a points-based system only for skilled workers without a job offer, and retaining a salary threshold for the bulk of applicants.

Ministerial desire for a points system is not purely cosmetic, however. It stems from a wish to address both cultural concerns and economic needs. Echoing the Danish points system, the Conservative manifesto promised to give priority to “people who have a good grasp of English, have been law-abiding citizens in their own countries [and] have good education and qualifications”. 

The irony for Leave voters is that Brexit will do nothing about the many people I’ve interviewed over the years who are living parallel lives. Whatever the criteria for new entrants, there needs to be a more concerted effort to teach English and improve the skills of those already here. There will need to be a reversal of the training cuts made by some companies during the influx of eastern European workers. 

One looming issue is whether ministers will continue to give EU citizens preferential treatment in terms of welfare. Until now they have essentially been treated as full UK residents on arrival. Non-EU citizens have been required to take out health insurance and are initially barred from most welfare benefits. In trying to maintain goodwill with EU partners, ministers may seek some kind of halfway house. But what contribution is demanded from new arrivals will determine whether voters judge the new immigration policy to be fair. 

The era of surfing on cheap labour is probably over. This implies a tough transition. But if post-Brexit Britain can attract top talent, improve skills and help communities assimilate, we might just feel more like the generous country we truly are.

Letter in response to this article:

UK must be careful in its approach to immigration / From Dr David Gelber, London SW10, UK

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