For many people, the whole point of voting for Brexit was to lower immigration. In every single study of why 17.4 million people voted to Leave the European Union, wanting to slow the pace and scale of immigration was —by far— the most powerful driver, alongside the closely connected desire to restore Britain’s sovereignty.
But for many voters today, promises to Take Back Control of Britain’s borders and reduce immigration sound increasingly hollow. While Brexit Britain does have more of a say over who is coming in and out of the country, since the last election its Conservative rulers have ushered in an immigration system which in many respects is more liberal than anything Tony Blair, David Cameron, or Theresa May presided over.
Contrary to misleading writers who portray Boris Johnson as a Trumpian figure and Brexit Britain as closed off to the world, the opposite is true. Britain’s outgoing Prime Minister oversaw a remarkable liberalisation of immigration policy while the country is now re-opening its doors, after the pandemic, to large-scale migration.
Always a cosmopolitan at heart, Johnson leaves office having introduced a series of changes which will transform Britain in the years ahead. While the changes have so far attracted little attention they will soon have profound implications on the country and, almost certainly, its politics.
Johnson scrapped the cap on work visas. He loosened salary and qualification requirements for somebody to qualify as a skilled worker. He allowed skilled workers to remain indefinitely in the UK. He lowered the salary threshold required for them to do so. He ruled employers no longer have to demonstrate their jobs cannot be done by British workers. And he reintroduced the post-study work visa, allowing international students who completed their university degree in Britain to remain for two or three years before then switching onto the skilled worker route if they find a job. Because of these changes, somebody can essentially qualify to work and remain on a salary as low as £20,480 —£18,000 less than the mean average salary.
As the University Oxford’s independent and highly respected Migration Observatory points out, while the new system is more restrictive for EU nationals who until Brexit had previously enjoyed freedom of movement rights, for the rest of the world ‘the policy reflects a notable liberalisation’. And we are now beginning to see its effects.
Contrary to the claim when the system was introduced that it would reduce overall immigration, the numbers that are emerging —now that the pandemic is moving into the rear-view mirror— tell a very different story. Britain is doubling down on mass immigration. According to data released by the Home Office this week, the number of visas given to workers, students, their relatives, and other foreign nationals has jumped by more than 80% in a year to more than 1.1 million —the largest on record.
The number of work-related visas has surpassed 331,000 —a 72% increase compared to 2019. The number of more specific ‘worker’ (or what used to be called ‘skilled worker’) visas has almost doubled, increasing by 96%. And the number of grants given to Temporary Workers has jumped by 67% to more than 72,000. As the Home Office points out, this is the largest number of work visas that have been issued in a single year since Britain began collecting data all the way back in 2005.
This is not just about workers. The number of Sponsored study visas for international students also just hit a record high —of almost half a million. This not only reflects the ongoing recovery from Covid-19 but a sharp 71% increase on pre-Covid levels. Compared to 2019, the number of sponsored grants to Indians has rocketed by 215%. The number to Pakistanis is up 377%. The number to Nigerians is up 686%. Chinese and Indians now comprise almost half of all sponsored study grants.
Compared to 2019, the number of visas granted for family reasons, to the partners or children of people who are on work or study visas, and Hong Kongers, has also soared. It is up 61% to more than 303,000. The number of grants given to relatives of students has rocketed from 16,000 in 2019 to 81,000 in 2022. And the number of grants given to relatives of workers has doubled, reaching 100,000.
In other words, compared to 2019 the percentage of visas given to dependants of international students is up 405%, to dependants of workers is up 101%, to dependants of people on other work visas is up 69%, and to dependants of people on other visas is up 280%. Overall, outside family-related visas, the share of dependants who have been given visas is up 180%.
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At the same time, the number of asylum applications has also increased by about 80% —which is not only higher than during the post-2014 refugee crisis but is the highest since the peak that was recorded under New Labour, in 2003.
Because of these changes, the source of immigration into Britain is now beginning to change in profound and perhaps permanent ways. Prior to Brexit, EU nationals from eastern Europe made up at least half of all long-term immigration and net migration. But ever since Brexit, this picture has been rapidly changing as the vision of Global Britain held by Liberal Leavers has moved from fantasy into reality.
In the aftermath of Brexit and amid the pandemic, net migration into Britain from inside the EU was minus 94,000 in 2020 and minus 12,000 in the year ending June 2021 —meaning more EU nationals were leaving than arriving. Many Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Hungarians, Slovenians, and others have left Britain and not returned.
As that chapter in Britain’s immigration story has come to a close, a new one is now beginning. According to the latest data, from the ONS, there are close to 1.8 million non-EU nationals working in Britain —302,000 more than a year ago.
Increasingly, from here on, it will be workers from outside Europe —from the likes of India (worker visas are up 80%), the Philippines (103%), Nigeria (303%), and Zimbabwe (744%), who will make up a rapidly rising share of overall immigration into Britain.
On Britain’s university campuses, too, Indian, Chinese, Nigerian, and Pakistani students will become increasingly prominent. And when it comes to family-related migration the most prominent nationalities are Pakistan, India, the US, South Africa, and Iran. Between Tony Blair’s second election victory in 2005 and the aftermath of the pandemic, in 2021, the total number of visas issued to non-EU citizens has surged from 568,000 each year to 843,000 —15% higher than before the pandemic.
Britain had already become a country of mass immigration before these changes. Because of the very high and sustained immigration which took place under the Blair, Brown, and Cameron governments, by 2019 Britain was running a net migration rate of nearly 350,000 each year. Between 2011 and 2021, net migration contributed about two million towards Britain’s population growth.
Immigration, rather than natural change, became and remains the primary driver of the country’s population growth while the overall share of the population that is ‘foreign-born’ —at 14%— is already higher than the equivalent in Italy, France, Greece, Denmark, the Netherlands, and even the United States. Because of these policy changes, it will now only increase further and faster in the years ahead.
And, unfortunately, growing public concern about these shifts is now also exacerbated by the rising number of migrants and asylum-seekers who are crossing the English Channel to enter the country illegally. Last week saw a new record of 1,300 migrant crossings in a single day —in 27 boats. This year, so far, more than 23,000 people have journeyed across the Channel —compared to 12,500 at the same point last year, 8,404 during all of 2020 and just 299 throughout 2018.
In the latest data, the most prominent nationalities on the boats are, in descending rank order, Iranians, Iraqis, Eritreans, Syrians, Vietnamese, Afghans, Sudanese, and then Albanians —who are clearly growing in number.
It is certainly true that amid these changes British attitudes have shifted in important ways. Contrary to much that is written about Brexit Britain, ever since the vote to Leave the EU the country has, overall, become more positive about immigration. The vast majority of British people are also very welcoming of refugees and asylum-seekers —the Ukrainians, Hong Kongers, and Afghan interpreters.
One recent academic paper describes this shift as the ‘populist paradox’, pointing out how anti-immigration attitudes among the British have softened significantly since the vote for Brexit —among both Leavers and Remainers. Whereas some Remainers have doubled down on their liberal values, partly in response to Brexit, some Leavers feel they have more control over migration while both groups have also sought to distance themselves from accusations of racism.
Ipsos-MORI finds much the same. Between the vote for Brexit in 2016 and the fall of Boris Johnson in 2022, the share of Remainers who say they want more immigration has jumped more than three-fold, from 9 to 31%, while the share of Leavers who say they want less immigration has fallen from 81% to 64%. These are certainly significant shifts and provide tentative evidence to suggest some changes are underway.
But they are also routinely exaggerated by commentators, academics, and think-tankers who see them as confirming their pro-immigration priors. This is feeding the narrative, popular on Twitter, that the British are now ‘pro-immigration’ —they want more of it and will no longer support calls from politicians and parties, whether new or old, to restrict it. This is at best misleading and at worst just wrong.
The blunt reality is that much of Britain remains deeply concerned about both the pace and scale of immigration —and this concern, I think, will only intensify as more and more voters tune in to the reality of the new system and the trends we have just surveyed. Much like it took voters a few years to grasp the full consequences of freedom of movement from across the EU, it will likely to take them a few years to grasp the fact that, despite Brexit, Britain not only still has historically unprecedented levels of immigration but that these flows are also more culturally, ethnically, and religiously distinctive from the flows that came before.
Even today, there is a large reservoir of public disillusionment. More than half the country think immigration was too high throughout the last decade. More than half of all voters and more than three-quarters of 2019 Tories think the government has been “too soft” on the Channel crossings. More than two-thirds think Britain should ‘refuse to accept asylum applications from people who have entered the UK illegally and could reasonably have claimed asylum in another safe country’. Nearly seven in ten think it is acceptable to use RAF planes and the Royal Navy to help secure Britain’s borders. Nearly 60% would support the Border Force turning back small boats carrying migrants. And more than half support sending asylum-seekers overseas or to offshore processing centres — a move only 18% oppose.
And while some people have certainly become more positive about immigration, it is worth remembering that only 22% of the country want immigration to increase —which it now certainly will. Others put the figure even lower. YouGov find only 12% of voters in England, which receives most immigration, want it increased while most, 54%, want it reduced (jumping to 77% of Conservatives and 80% of Leavers).
Contrary to those misleading voices who say voters no longer really care about this issue it remains the second top concern for both Conservative and Leave voters —behind the economy. Number 10 would do well to remember that the vast majority of voters who abandoned the Labour Party and the Brexit Party for the Conservative Party at the last election wanted to reduce overall immigration into the country.
There are two reasons why I think this really does matter for British politics. The first is that people’s confidence in the ability of their leaders to manage immigration is already at historic lows. Ask people how the government is performing on this issue and close to 80% now say “badly”. And when they are asked which party they back on this issue, ever since Boris Johnson came to power the share who refuse to back any of the major parties has been steadily rising —to 48%. Almost half the country, in other words, no longer support the established parties on the immigration question.
And when Ipsos-MORI asked people why they felt dissatisfied, most were instinctively negative, not positive —they said the government is not doing enough to stop the rising number of Channel crossings, they said the government is allowing too many people to claim asylum, they said immigration numbers are too high, and they said the government is too generous to immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The problem, as Professor Lauren McLaren has shown, is that when public concern about a big and emotional issue like immigration remains unresolved, it leads to a broader erosion of trust in the wider system. And when voters no longer believe the system is responsive it clears the path for a second problem: a virulent populism.
Today, Brexit Britain finds itself in the remarkable position of having no successful national populist party. Few other democracies can say the same. In France, Marine Le Pen just went mainstream. In Italy, Georgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy are leading the polls ahead of a crunch election this month. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán is stronger than ever. And elsewhere —in Austria, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden— anti-immigration populists remain a significant if not growing force.
Britain, through Brexit, managed to successfully neutralise its own national populists by absorbing people’s concerns over immigration and an unresponsive political class into the mainstream and then promising to address them. This is why, in 2019, the Conservatives won their largest majority for more than thirty years and demolished the Red Wall. Voters turned to them not just to regain control but lower the numbers —something the minority of Liberal Leavers appear to have forgotten.
If the next Prime Minister fails to deliver on that promise then Brexit Britain will not remain an outlier in the West for long. By failing to take back control and reduce migration to sustainable levels our future governments on both the left and right will end up losing control. Britain will return, quickly, to the dark days of the pre-Brexit era when anti-immigration populism upended the system. Instead of calls to hold a referendum on EU membership there will be new calls to hold a referendum on net migration; instead of a populist party that is wholly focused on the question of Europe there will be a new party that is wholly focused on the question of immigration. The populist virus, in other words, will be back with a vengeance. And that would not be good for our politics, our country, or our democracy.
Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. This piece was first published on his Substack.
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