During elections, complex issues are radically simplified. Both the campaigns and the media are responsible for it, but this is reasonable – busy people have little time to investigate the merits of complicated policy ideas.
As such, the immigration debate that took place during the EU referendum was depicted as a choice between continued large-scale immigration or very little immigration.
Given the high profile of the issue, many have therefore interpreted a vote for Brexit as being a public rejection of the merits of immigration. This has worried businesses – particularly in the tech and financial sectors – who depend on a steady stream of high-skilled workers from across the globe.
But the public’s position is more nuanced than the campaign would allow. People neither voted against immigration per se, nor do they consider themselves to have done so. Politicians should not take action to address perceived hostility – and businesses should not inadvertently pressure them into such action by publicly worrying about public opposition that does not exist.
It is true the public think Britain has had too much immigration in recent times. They believe this by a very large margin. A poll for YouGov last month showed that 70 per cent think too many people entered Britain over the last decade, compared to 20 per cent saying the right amount and just 2 per cent saying too few people have entered.
It is also true people seem concerned about both pressure on public services from migration and the perceived unfairness of migrants receiving benefits without longstanding National Insurance contributions. And Lord Ashcroft’s major poll of voters after the EU referendum revealed that border control was one of the main reasons people voted to leave.
But dig a little deeper and a more nuanced truth emerges. First, Ashcroft’s poll did not show immigration was the most important issue for leave voters. Border control was second to the principle that “decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. And YouGov’s extensive poll on immigration in August revealed that, while more people thought the amount of immigration into Britain had been bad rather than good for the country – by 33 per cent to 22 per cent – even more thought that the levels had been both bad and good (38 per cent).
These are just two measures that reflect the more complex position the public has. YouGov’s poll showed that people were generally positive about immigration from countries like Canada, the US, Ireland, France, Germany, Sweden and Australia. This should not be seen as a straightforward issue of race – as people said that religion was not an important factor in deciding whether economic migrants should be able to come to Britain. Rather, they said education levels, skills shortages, job offers and English proficiency were important.
In short, while there are undoubted concerns about a lack of control over borders – and the corresponding high numbers of migrants that have kept coming to Britain – as well as concerns over perceived “fairness” within the welfare state, the public do not want to shut the doors. They clearly support – or would be prepared to support – significant high-skilled immigration. And they are relaxed about the cultural background of those that come to the UK.
What should the government do about this? A points system seems to me the most sensible approach and one that would likely gain public support. Coupled with a major drive to advertise across the world that Britain wants and needs the best and brightest (along with a continued duty to take a fair share of refugees and asylum seekers, of course), this would send the message that Britain is determined to become the open, liberal trading nation that made the country so successful in the past.
And what about business? They need to help government design an immigration system they think would boost the economy by joining the debate on the issue. But some businesses need to drop their despondency about what the EU vote was and what it meant. The public believe the country is open for business.