The May government is making a big mistake on EU immigration

Leaving the EU means controlling our own immigration policy, not having an illiberal and anti-foreigner one

BY Andrew Lilico   /  7 October 2016

Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond and Jeremy Hunt all campaigned to Remain in the EU. I campaigned to leave. Those four advocates of Remaining in the EU are now advocating various kinds of illiberal anti-migrant policies: asking firms to draw up lists of foreign workers; naming and shaming firms that hire too many foreigners; suggesting to foreign doctors they can leave Britain once we have trained up enough UK doctors; and holding over 3m EU citizens in the UK the threat that they will be deported if negotiations with the EU break down.

Now I know that the detail of all of these policies except the last is unlikely to be as bad as it sounds. The lists of foreign workers would probably only be percentages of foreign workers rather than named individuals and they would probably have been sought for equalities legislation purposes (ironically, to ensure firms weren’t discriminating against foreign workers). The “naming and shaming” probably wouldn’t actually be of firms hiring large numbers of foreign workers per se but, rather, those that had large numbers of illegal immigrants. We’re not really going to ask any foreign doctors to leave. And even in respect of the EU citizens, monstrous though it is that their right to remain and work has not yet been guaranteed, no-one serious actually believes they’re going to be ejected.

Nonetheless, the purpose of all this is clear. Ministers that campaigned to Remain in the EU are trying to signal to the public that they understand what folk wanted when they voted to leave the EU. And that’s appalling, and I shall argue against them.

The referendum was about whether we should leave the EU. Leaving the EU clearly involved making our own laws (leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ) and controlling our own borders (an end to free movement). That was what people voted for and that’s what they must get. But these pro-Remain ministers feel they must go beyond what people voted for, to what they “want”. But what voters want has no place in our constitution. Indeed, quite the reverse – since the time of Elizabeth there has been the principle that the government ought not to seek a window into men’s souls.

What matters in our system is not what people want. What matters is who (in an election) or what (in a referendum) they vote for. What they want is of relevance for only three purposes. First, what they want may tell us something of who or what they might vote for next time. Second, what they want may indicate something of what they will tolerate without civil disobedience (refusing to obey laws or pay taxes), revolution or the Queen intervening to overthrow the government. Third, what they want may have some relevance in of certain policies where the idea is to give people what they want (e.g. if we have a consultation exercise).

Beyond that, one of the great strengths of parliamentary democracy is that we don’t need to give people what they want, or indeed to care about that very much at all. Caring what people want is what dictators do, so that they don’t end up with their head on a spike.

The referendum result requires us to leave the EU. Leaving the EU means withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECJ and making our own immigration policy. It doesn’t tell us what laws we thereafter must make for ourselves.

It is no surprise – indeed, it is an inevitable consequence – that the UK’s having greater freedom to set its own laws means some people will argue for things I don’t like. For example, withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ECJ means we will be free to introduce state aid subsidies for failing businesses. Brexit doesn’t mean I have to agree to state aid.

Similarly, it is no surprise – indeed, it was an inevitable result of the referendum result – that the UK’s greater freedom to set its own immigration policies means some folk will argue for things I don’t like. But Brexit doesn’t mean I have to agree to those policies.

When I say: “I don’t agree with May’s government’s approach to EU citizens or to immigration more generally. I believe May, Rudd, Hammond and Hunt are over-compensating for having supported Remain and I believe their policies provide illiberal signals that are in no way a necessary consequence of Brexit.” pro-Remain people get annoyed with me. They say: “Were you so naïve? Did you not realise this would happen?” Or they say “So you now agree with us that we shouldn’t leave the EU?”

Nonsense. I knew full well that leaving the EU would mean some people favouring less liberal immigration policies than I do, just as I knew it meant some people favouring less liberal economic policies than I do. But just because it means some folk arguing for that doesn’t mean I have to agree! And it certainly doesn’t mean I have to lose!

Many very foolish former Remain supporters keep saying and saying and saying and saying and saying, like some overpowering verbal tic, “But the EU referendum was all about immigration.” What they seem to mean by that is that May and her government have no choice but to enact illiberal immigration policies in response to the referendum result. I don’t accept that at all. The referendum ballot had nothing on it about threatening to deport 3m EU citizens or about naming and shaming firms for hiring foreigners. We’re under zero obligation to do that.

And furthermore, there’s little to no reason that should be able to get through, politically. The only reason I can grasp for its getting as far as it has is that Remain voices keep repeating, tediously, over and over and over again that “The referendum was all about immigration” instead of spending their time and energy arguing against illiberal immigration policies. And no – by that I don’t mean spending their time on futile attempts to retain free movement of persons. The options are not: a) Have no control of your own borders; or b) Threaten to deport 3m people and name-and-shame firms that hire foreigners. We can take control of our own immigration policy without using that control in illiberal ways.

I also want to observe that those that ask me “So do you regret having supported leaving the EU now?” appear to have an extraordinarily small conception of what the EU is. Leaving the EU is not about the UK’s immigration policies for the next three years. It’s about the future destiny of the country for the next 40 years. Even if we did end up with immigration policies I considered undesirable (assuming we don’t actually deport 3m people – if we really did that then I’d have to reconsider my views about Britain altogether) for 2 to 3 years, that’s unfortunate but it doesn’t change the overall equation.

Lastly, although I am not surprised to find pro-Remain ministers over-compensating on immigration in general, there is one point I am surprised about. I am aghast that the UK continues to refuse to guarantee that EU citizens that were here legally on June 23rd, having come on the understanding that they had indefinite rights to live and work here, will indeed have indefinite leave to remain and to work. I find it literally shaming that our country is adopting this stance, and I find it a grave disappointment that our media has not made this the big story every day until May backed down. What bigger story can there be than that the UK is threatening to deport 3m people who came to live here perfectly legally? How does that continue to be allowed to pass without being loudly and near-universally condemned every single day?

This article was originally published by Andrew Lilico and can be read here.