By Guy Birchall, British journalist covering current affairs, politics and free speech issues. Recently published in The Sun and Spiked Online. Follow him on Twitter @guybirchall
Brexit was based on a promise of taking back control of Britain’s borders. So don’t the public deserve an explanation following a huge influx of arrivals from China and India?
Immigration into the UK from outside the European Union has hit its highest ever level, according to government figures released on Thursday. Statistics showed that in 2019 there was a huge influx of students from China and India, taking the total of those arriving in Britain from outside the EU to 404,000. And with just 122,000 leaving the country, that gave a net inflow to the UK of 282,000 from outside the EU.
Despite Brexit, more EU citizens also arrived than left, with 196,000 coming in against 147,000 leaving – a net increase of 49,000.That resulted in a total net increase of 331,000, more than the population of Belfast or Nottingham.
Silence of the Brexiteers
Brexiteers have been conspicuously quiet on this issue, which seems rather surprising given that immigration was a significant factor in the people’s decision to vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
Aren’t Brits owed an explanation as to why so many people are setting up shop in their country each year? This level of migration doesn’t sound in keeping with a nation that has “taken back control” of its borders, as the famous referendum campaign pledge promised.
Regardless of your own personal view on immigration, the UK electorate has been very clear on numerous occasions that it is concerned about the level of new arrivals into the country. While illegal immigration unquestionably needs to be stopped, the fact remains that the vast majority of Brits also believe that the number of legal migrants should be frozen or reduced.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson’s government has taken serious steps to reduce immigration. Indeed, from the way Home Secretary Priti Patel is portrayed in the media, you might think she was keen to round up anyone who doesn’t know all six verses of ‘God Save The Queen’ and forcibly deport them.
But as the figures show, net migration to the UK is still increasing and there is no guarantee that her much discussed Australian-style point-based system or ending freedom of movement will see a material reduction in migration.
The Conservative Party, despite its reputation, does not have a good record on cutting back immigration; you may recall David Cameron’s promise to reduce immigration to “tens of thousands per year” back in 2010, a target that has never come close to being met.
Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage has also been curiously quiet about the news. While he has been extremely vocal about migrants entering the country illegally by crossing the English Channel from France, as evidenced by his online seafaring adventures, the fact that so many are still arriving legally doesn’t seem to have drawn much of his attention. And clearly the numbers arriving illegally from Calais each year are minuscule compared to the hundreds of thousands that arrive in the UK perfectly legally every year.
British politicians have either been terrified of tackling the topic of immigration or actively encouraging more of it for decades. Conservative MPs skirt the issue out of fear of being compared to Enoch Powell, and Labour politicians don’t see political capital to be gained from dealing with it, partly because immigrant voters are more likely to vote for them.
A hostile mainstream media that is all too ready to fling around words like ‘bigoted’ and ‘racist’ has also contributed to the topic being seen as toxic.
And yet immigration remains a major concern for both the main parties’ support bases. Old Labour voters in the north of England and the Midlands have been alarmed and, in some cases, unhappy, about the changes large-scale immigration has brought to their towns and cities. Similarly, non-metropolitan Tories are also worried about the changing face of Britain.
Boris Johnson owes his enormous majority in the House of Commons to the fact that he finally managed to unite these two groups with his “Get Brexit Done” message during the general election last December. He cannot now abandon their concerns when in office.
Britons who worry about the level of immigration can’t simply be dismissed as xenophobic and racist, as they have been for so long. Although Covid-19 is diverting attention at the moment, there will come a time when the pandemic has passed and old worries come back to the fore. And as the EU can no longer be used as a scapegoat for unpopular policies inflicted on the British people, politicians will finally have to take responsibility for the wants of their electorate.
As was so often pointed out during the referendum campaign, a sovereign nation should be able to control its laws and its borders. The outbreak of coronavirus has proven that the government is more than capable of taking drastic action to address a problem if it wishes to do so.
The public will then have every right to ask why the concerns they have had over immigration for decades continue to be ignored given that it took a matter of days to transform Britain into what was effectively a police state.
No state that can so successfully place its entire population under virtual house arrest can reasonably argue that it cannot stop people entering the country in the first place. The Government needs to remember it works for the people of the UK, not the people of the world, and certainly not for itself.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.