Why Brexit’s immigration politics have fizzled out

If this week marks the end of Brexit as a central issue in British politics, as my Times colleague Mark Landler suggested may have happened yesterday, then it went with a whimper, not a bang.

On Monday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, announced an agreement on trade rules for Northern Ireland, resolving one of the last major Brexit-related disputes between Britain and the European Union.

But while coverage in the British press was generally positive, it had more of the sense of a dutiful news cycle than a genuine watershed moment. That is consistent with voters’ generally blasé attitude toward the Northern Ireland negotiations: a YouGov poll this week found that 44 percent of Britons weren’t following the issue at all, and only 6 percent reported following it closely.

On the one hand, this seems kind of shocking: leaving the European Union is the most significant political and economic event for Britain in a generation. The country is in the midst of an economic crisis. People aren’t even paying attention?

But Brexit, as a political issue, was never really about trade for many Britons, but immigration. And that issue now plays a very different role in British politics than during the run-up to the 2016 referendum — a shift that can tell us something about how fear of immigration gathers steam as a political issue, and when it loses it.

A focus on taking control

Immigration was not the only issue for voters in the Brexit contest, but it was a primary focus of the “Vote Leave” campaign ahead of the 2016 referendum.

In particular, Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, hammered claims that E.U. membership meant overwhelming, uncontrolled immigration. Notoriously, his campaign ran a poster that showed a large crowd of mostly nonwhite immigrants with a slogan saying that the country was at a “breaking point,” and exhorting voters to “break free of the E.U. and take back control.”

That is a powerful message. When I was reporting on the rise of populism in Europe in 2016 and 2017, Immo Fritsche, a professor at the University of Leipzig in Germany who studies group identity formation, told me that when people feel a loss of control — such as from a sense that borders are open and immigration has no limits — they cling more closely to racial and national identities. And they desire leaders who promise to reassert control.

Those tendencies are easy pickings for populist politicians like Farage, who claimed that Brexit was a way for Britain to wrest control of its borders from the European Union.

The appeal to fears of uncontrolled immigration worked. In the week before the 2016 referendum, polling found that immigration was voters’ most important issue, ultimately powering “leave” to a slim victory.

By contrast, the remain camp, which focused on economic arguments for staying in the E.U., struggled to convince voters that Brexit would have a personal or economic effect on their lives, Gideon Skinner, the head of political research for Ipsos, a polling firm, wrote shortly before the referendum.

Losing political potency

Now, however, immigration is a far less potent political issue, even among those who voted to leave.

According to a long-running Ipsos survey, in 2015, 81 percent of “leave” voters wanted immigration to be reduced. Now, only 64 percent of them do. And overall support for increased immigration is now the highest the survey has ever measured. The World Values Survey, a long-running academic study, found that in 2022 58 percent of Britons thought that the government should let anyone into the country as long as there were jobs available, with a further 10 percent saying there shouldn’t be any restrictions.

That’s all the more remarkable because immigration numbers are actually much higher now than when Britain left the European Union in 2020. Net migration (the number of immigrants arriving, minus the number of people who left the country) has been especially high in the last year because people arriving from Ukraine and Hong Kong under special visa programs.

There are some political reasons that hasn’t provoked a backlash. As I’ve written in the past, Ukrainians have a lot of public support because of a sense that Russia is a shared threat, and that helping Ukrainian refugees helps the Ukrainian war effort.

But the bigger difference seems to be that the era of free (and therefore uncontrolled-seeming) European immigration ended when Britain left the European Union in 2020. Ukrainian refugees and people fleeing China’s security crackdown in Hong Kong have had access to special visa programs that allow them to enter the country via normal channels. Only a tiny fraction of migrants arrive without prior permission, and nearly all of those apply for asylum.

The special visa for people fleeing Hong Kong is an interesting example. Stephanie Schwartz, a political scientist at the London School of Economics who studies the politics of immigration, noted a striking lack of criticism or even public attention to that program, even though the government estimated that as many as 300,000 people would be able to apply.

As with Ukraine, political attitudes likely played a role. Farage, for instance, has been particularly critical of the Chinese government’s actions. But it may also be because the government decided to process those applications via a special visa program rather than the political asylum process, Schwartz said, even though most people leaving Hong Kong as a result of the crackdown there would probably have had strong claims for asylum.

“They are not being labeled asylum seekers, and that is to their advantage,” Schwartz said.

And at the same time that those structures make immigration less potent as a political issue, other issues make it more likely to be an uncomfortable one for the government. A recent report by the Nuffield Trust, a health think tank, found that leaving the E.U. had cost Britain’s National Health Service thousands of doctors and other health workers, contributing to critical staffing shortages and the overall crisis in the British health system.

The exception to the government’s general quiet on immigration is the one area involving many of the most vulnerable migrants, but in which it is still possible to connect to voters’ sense of lost control: asylum policy.

People seeking asylum in Britain usually have to arrive without a visa, because there is no way to initiate that process from outside the country.

One of Sunak’s first actions as prime minister when he took office last fall was to meet with President Emmanuel Macron of France and promise to “get a grip” on asylum-seekers taking boats across the English Channel. Sunak’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, had also presented a plan for asylum-seekers — deporting them to Rwanda — but it immediately faced legal challenges.

“If we’re looking at the way that the narrative of immigration and migration is being used, we’re dialing down, we’re silencing the conversation on labor and its relationship to a lot of things domestically that the population is upset about,” Schwartz said. “And we’re instead seeing the narrative focus on the ‘illegality’ of a certain form of migration.”

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