Chloe Westley is the Campaign Manager of the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
Most Leave voters are disappointed by the government’s new soft Brexit strategy. There have been resignations from the Conservative Party, letters of discontent, and vocal criticisms from Leave-supporting ministers, MPs and activists. So far, the main criticisms of the Government’s Brexit plans have been about close alignment on regulations and trade policy; the Chequers proposal does not empower Britain effectively to take back control of laws or trade.
But what about taking back control of our borders? Immigration so far has tended to slip under the radar. Theresa May has said that we will ‘end free movement of people’ and, so far, we have all taken her word for it.
I understand that immigration is an issue that most politicians tend to avoid, and when prompted will always say ‘immigration is a good thing for Britain’ in order to receive rounding applause from the audience. And, yes, immigration can be and has been a good thing for Britain. But as an immigrant myself, I would like us to have a more open and realistic conversation about whether free movement and Britain’s subsequently discriminatory immigration policy is fit for purpose.
During the EU Referendum, taking back control of Britain’s borders was seen as one of the primary benefits of leaving. For years, there was cross-party consensus that EU membership and free movement of people was good for Britain. When concerns were raised about free movement and immigration, they were dismissed as bigoted and ignorant.
June 2016 was the first time the British people were consulted on EU membership for decades. And they voted Leave. And yes, many did so because they wanted more control over immigration, but not in the way that you might think. There is a huge difference between wanting immigration to be controlled and wanting it to end altogether. Most people that I spoke to during the campaign wanted the U.K. to implement a skills-based system like Australia’s. Indeed, that was a key policy highlighted by the Vote Leave campaign.
A poll this month from Channel 4 revealed that attitudes to immigration haven’t softened since the referendum, with 70 per cent of voters in Britain wanting immigration from the EU reduced. A YouGov poll in April also indicated that the public think immigration is too high.
But the Government would be mistaken to believe that concerns about immigration – and particularly free movement – is only about numbers. That same YouGov poll found that, whilst most would back an overall reduction in numbers, over 70 per cent of people are “happy with either the same or increased levels of skilled immigration”. And a report by Open Europe, perhaps the most comprehensive of its kind on British attitudes towards immigration, concluded that the “public had a clear preference for a system with greater controls on immigration over a simple reduction in numbers” and “there was little specific support for the Government’s target of net migration in the tens of thousands a year, but the public want numbers to come down.”
During the referendum campaign, I also found this to be the case. Most of the activists and leave voters that I spoke to were concerned about the Government’s lack of control and the huge numbers of unskilled workers entering the country.
It’s entirely sensible to believe in controlled immigration. You can’t have open borders with the whole world. So the question is how you decide who is allowed to come into the country to live and work. For years, Britain’s policy has been based on where someone is born, as opposed to merit.
I campaigned passionately with Vote Leave, as an immigrant, for a fair and controlled skills-based immigration system that admitted people into the country based on merit rather than their passport. This kind of immigration policy would not only be hugely popular with people here in Britain, but would also send out a clear message to the rest of the world that the UK is a fair and globally-minded sovereign nation.
Taking back control of borders and implementing a fair and controlled skills-based immigration system would be a huge win for the Government, and deliver on a key pledge of the Brexit campaign. It is claimed that the Chancellor privately advocates a policy of preferential treatment for EU workers post-Brexit. May hasn’t ruled out giving EU citizens preferential rights post-Brexit, and her Chequers proposal included reference to a ‘Mobility Framework’, which is so vaguely defined that it could give her the breathing-space to maintain some kind of free movement arrangement with the EU.
Any deal with the EU that offers concessions on immigration will be met with far greater criticisms than alignment on laws or customs arrangements. A free movement arrangement with a ‘cap’ on numbers would, for example, entirely miss the point of why so many voted to control immigration.
Very soon, the Government must publish Britain’s post-Brexit immigration policy. There will be more disagreements in Cabinet and in the Commons. Those politicians advocating continued free movement of people, or preferential treatment of EU citizens, are not only out of touch, but also supporting a discriminatory and arguably xenophobic system which was rejected by the British people in that referendum. It’s time for the Government and the Home Secretary to stand up to the EU, take back control of Britain’s borders, and establish a fair and skills-based immigration system.