In what way is immigration relevant to the Brexit debate?
Those on the hard, quick Brexit side of the debate claim that immigration was one of the main drivers of the Leave vote. And that ‘the will of the people’ must be respected.
In her Lancaster House speech (what a different world it now all seems), the Prime Minister mentioned control of people coming to the UK from Europe as one of the key Brexit objectives.
Let us for the moment assume that immigration was a driving force of the Brexit vote. What does that mean and how do we resolve it?
There are many reasons why some would like to increase control over immigration. Let’s take them in turn.
Some fear the implications of multi-culturalism on social cohesion and the shared social norms and solidarity which hold neighbourhoods, societies and nations together. It is true that we have not done very well in dealing with our multi-cultural society. It’s not an easy task. And it is not helped by an excess of political correctness that only serves to drive more resentment.
But the degree of social change through immigration is also dependent on the gap in social norms between a native population and the immigrant population. Britain has for decades welcomed people from all parts of the world. The London Olympics proudly announced that it was the first time that a host country had residents from every single participating nation. Those now coming from Europe have attitudes and social norms that much closer to ‘traditional’ British attitudes than some from elsewhere. If social cohesion were the primary concern, then it is not clear why European immigration should be particularly problematic.
A second reason often put forward is the idea that low paid immigrants are ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘pushing down our wages’. Let us not get into the well worn economist arguments as to whether this is true or not. The more important question is – will Brexit resolve the issue? It patently will not. The mere preparation for Brexit has already significantly reduced people’s buying power – much the same effect as ‘pushing down our wages.’ And the harder the Brexit, the worse the effects on jobs, wages and general standard of living.
So, if the immigration argument is one of prosperity and living standards, Brexit is certainly the wrong solution. Except maybe in the fantasy world of those who still insist that the whole nation can turn on a sixpence and become prosperous global Britain within months, and without missing a beat.
A third issue often brought up is that our public services are simply unable to cope with the influx. This is undoubtedly true. Our public services are under-resourced and over-centralised. Once again, will Brexit solve this? Unlikely. First, the inevitable hit to the economy will make less money available for public services. Secondly, were immigration truly to be meaningfully reduced, our public services may well be driven from being over-stretched to full collapse due to lack of a sufficient workforce.
There is no plausible scenario under which Brexit can make our public services better in the short to medium term. Unless someone out there still believes in the ephemeral £350 million a week for the NHS.
Finally housing. Britain’s housing market is the mess that many commentators have described. Reducing pressure on housing is to be welcomed and a reduction in immigration may well contribute. Should the economy tank, house prices may also fall. But in such circumstances, there will be no finance for any massive house building programme. And neither will many be able to afford to buy houses in the wake of a tanking economy and lost jobs.
In short, apart from those who are naturally xenophobic, people did not vote to reduce immigration. They voted to reduce the adverse effects that they perceived immigration to be having on their own lives. Brexit may well allow a reduction in immigration. But the net effect of people’s lives will not improve. It will more likely worsen.
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