What will happen to immigration after Brexit?

Sunday 3 November, 12:0013:00, Auditorium 2Battle for Democracy


In the aftermath of the European Parliament elections, many alleged that the rise of the Brexit Party was fuelled by far-right concerns about immigrants. These concerns were an echo of the idea that the Brexit vote in 2016 came down to the issue of immigration, with those who voted Leave concerned about the scale of immigration that the EU makes possible and those voting Remain assumed to be in favour of free movement around Europe and immigration from EU countries.

Immigration certainly had a bearing on the Brexit vote, but it seems that immigration alone didn’t explain it. A well-publicised poll after the vote found that the number one concern for Leave voters was having control over who makes laws, rather than immigration. In the time since, poll after poll has found that UK citizens have more positive attitudes towards migrants than almost anywhere in Europe. If, as is often asserted, the Leave vote was driven by an undercurrent of racism in British society, how do we explain these attitudes?

Moreover, the success of the Brexit Party is hard to completely explain with reference to immigration: the party has studiously avoided references to migrants, while UKIP, considered to be standing on a platform to control immigration, performed poorly in the European elections. More broadly, Teresa May’s focus on ‘taking back control of our borders’ didn’t seem to resonate much with voters and arguably informed her doomed attempt to deliver a Brexit deal. Her confidence on the immigration issue was not dented by the public outrage over the Windrush scandal and ‘hostile environment’ policies. Whilst many people questioned for a Channel 4 poll did support ‘hostile environment’ policies, immigration just doesn’t seem to be a defining issue for voters: it no longer ranks in the top four concerns for British voters, well behind concern over Brexit, crime, health and the economy.

Whatever the real attitudes of people towards immigration, as the UK seeks to leave the EU, and especially if it leaves on ‘no deal’ terms, the UK is going to have to rethink its approach to immigration. Already, some have suggested that the Home Office should no longer discriminate between countries, as it currently does between EU and non-EU migrants. Others have suggested a renewed focus on immigration from Commonwealth countries, or focusing on building geopolitical goodwill by accepting a larger proportion of immigrants from key UK allies. Many insist that the UK will simply have to accept roughly similar levels of immigration as it currently does because of how its economy is structured. If they do not come from Europe, they will have to come from somewhere.

What will be the dynamics of immigration after Brexit? How important is controlling our borders, and what should we do with that control? Is a pivot to non-EU immigration likely, and is it a positive thing? How much immigration does Britain ‘need’ in any case, and does the structure of the UK’s economy give us much choice? How much does immigration actually concern most people, or has the whole issue become more of an issue on which politicians compete to grandstand or to pander to assumed prejudices?