Brexit: Widening the Debate on Immigration

The current Brexit debate carries a huge amount of historical and political baggage. Far from starting afresh with Cameron’s electoral pledge of reform and referendum, the debate is entrenched in both the historical discussion on EU membership and the electoral trends from May’s general election. No trend was more prominent in 2015 than the growing concerns over UK border security, which saw Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party take 4 million votes, running on a combined platform of Euroscepticism and restricted immigration. By August 2015, one in three voters identified Britain’s borders as the single most important issue facing the country.

Cameron’s reform deal sought to address this electoral trend by including a clause on immigration, namely the 4 year “brake” on in-work benefits to EU migrants. The decision to address immigration concerns through a social security measure reflects the economic nature of the 2015 election and the Brexit debate. Beneath a thin layer of rhetoric, the British obsession to secure the border is driven by concerns over job security, welfare strain, and wasted tax funds.

What is needed, however, is a broader discussion of how immigration shapes British culture, alongside a realization that the outcome of the EU referendum will dictate the future of UK immigration policy.

A satirical 1979 sketch by Rowan Atkinson, mimicking a conservative politician, has been likened to recent comments from Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne – bearing an amusing but frightening likeness. Atkinson muses, “I like curry… but now [that] we’ve got the recipe, do they really need to stay?” Although being an unfortunate choice of words from a generally pro-immigration Chancellor, the underlying sentiment is all too common in the Brexit debate over immigration. The belief that a nation can reap the gains of multiculturalism without having to economically accommodate migrants remains a prevailing sentiment, and needs serious reconsideration.

The perceived monetary costs of mass immigration have persistently driven Eurosceptic sentiment in the UK. Proponents of restrictive immigration policies reiterate the strain on job markets and welfare systems, arising from the EU’s freedom of movement allowances that make our attractive in-work benefits all too accessible. Ironically, awareness of these benefits was almost negligible amongst migrants from the EU prior to Cameron’s negotiations. While these arguments deserve consideration, it should be noted that the repeated association of Brexit and immigration with narrow economic policies is reducing the immigration debate to “money talk.”

The short-term focus of immigration discussions is also distracting from the long-term implications of the referendum. As of now, the Brexit discourse risks becoming a vote on a single policy, rather than on the fundamental principles of future UK immigration. Although the migrant crisis has triggered a much-needed discussion on border security in the EU, it has also distorted the public’s referendum lenses. The debate to be settled in the coming months is not whether migrants should be afforded benefits, but whether principles of tolerance and inclusion should be upheld amidst the growing economic costs of immigration. Reform may be needed to ease strain on social security and the job market, but it is flawed logic to believe that tension can only be addressed outside of the EU. Cameron’s “brake” on benefits, however significant, only has a lifespan of 7 years; the precedent established by the general public in June will set the course of UK immigration policy for generations to come. Short-term policy issues raise valid questions over the effectiveness of UK welfare policy regarding migrant benefits. But the pivotal issue, at the heart of the debate, is Britain’s role in Europe and beyond.

What kind of society does Britain want to be? One of high fences or one of multi-culturalism?

According to recent NatCen polls, 47% of the UK public believes that EU membership is “undermining Britain’s distinctive identity.” What this fails to recognize is that the “distinctive” attributes of modern British society are the values of tolerance, inclusion, and multiculturalism that have sustained policy since the retreat of the British Empire. Isolationism has never prevailed as the dominant motivator of policy in the UK – whose economic prowess owes a great amount to international trade, while historically forged bilateral relations with the United States and Western Europe continue to safeguard its ability to influence decisions on the international stage. The “special relationship” with the former, in particular, is heavily dependent on the UK’s continued role in Europe. The anti-immigration sentiment gripping many British voters threatens these vital connections with the rest of the world.

Importantly, the Brexit debate ignores the contribution of other nations to British prosperity, a fact that we are all too quick to forget. Muslim women in Manchester speaking to Channel 4 News have recently voiced frustrations at this denial by larger British society of its international roots, as well as its contribution to extremism in the Middle East. The UK has repeatedly provided a safe haven for immigrants escaping repressive regimes: Basque refugee children in the 1930s, Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin, and Hong Kong residents fearing government repression in the 1990s. Meanwhile, migrant entrepreneurs, arriving mostly from the most populous Commonwealth nations of India and Pakistan, have sustained Britain’s entrepreneur culture – accounting for an estimated 14% of UK job creation. Tolerance and inclusion have emerged in British culture as a mechanism to integrate contributor nations into Britain’s continued prosperity, and these moralities should not be drowned out in the Brexit debate. As an island nation we need to continue building bridges, not burning them.

British identity stems not only from external inclusion, but also internal union. Euroscepticism, however, so far has served only to exacerbate internal tensions across the four countries of the union. Much attention has been given to the possibility of a second Scottish referendum on independence if the UK votes to leave, but electoral trends show Scots clearly see the dangers of go-it-alone policies. Having voted to remain a part of the UK in 2014, Scotland has nailed its “better-together” colors to the mast, while polls show the same attitude being adopted towards Europe – 4 of the 10 most Europhilic counties in Britain are situated north of the border. Wales shows similar support for continued EU membership, although less pronounced at 55%. While Northern Ireland’s majority party has declared its support for a British exit, 75% of the public and all the remaining parties have opted to supporting the cause to remain in the EU. This prevailing anti-Brexit stance has largely been driven by two concerns: the reinstallation of controls on the Irish border and the reigniting of the united Ireland debate, which fuelled decades of violence in the region. A Brexit driven by isolationism would send a clear message to the union that self-determination and autonomy are the policy “silver bullets,” a message that will only continue to fuel discord within the union.

The weeds of polls, arguments, and counter-arguments in the current debate mask the true nature of the choice facing us: a choice between inclusion and exclusion, not economic gain and loss. This fundamental assumption can provide the backdrop for discussions over the economic aspects of immigration, but these discussions cannot operate in negligence of the broader precedent being set.

Anti-immigration sentiments seen in the UK 2015 election have been echoed across Europe, with minority parties like the Sweden Democrats and France’s Front National surging to gain the support of 20% and 28% of the public respectively. In all these cases, the same economic arguments are being used to validate immigration concerns to the detriment of reasoned debate over reform. Valid though these monetary apprehensions may be, at some point the debate must recognize that inclusive immigration policy has been integral to the historical prosperity of Europe, and that these principles are easily overlooked in the presence of seemingly concrete statistics. The question of Brexit should be decided not solely on economic terms, of pounds lost and gained, but in consideration of the broader principles of British society and governance.

Ben Rogers is a UK-based writer completing his MA in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. He is currently studying abroad at the American University’s School of International Service, Washington DC, focusing on security studies and counterterrorism. His Twitter is @bprogers_ir.

Photo by Descrier / CC BY 2.0



  1. Ultimately, the vote to leave the EU was indeed motivated by anti immigrant sentiment, however, it manifested itself in opposition to White, European immigrants and not those from the developing world. A key part of the leave campaign’s message, was the argument that Britain would be “open to the world”, if it left the constraints of the European Union and that immigration would be open to higher skilled, Indian immigrants, as opposed to lower-skilled eastern European immigrants.

    You argue that the vote to leave is/would be a vote for isolationism and exclusion. In reality, the vote can be perceived as an indication from the electorate (thus the native population) of the will to survive, to continue as a nation. A Nation State can only exist if the Nation continues to exist. Since the nation is an ethnic (not civic) people, (i.e. “Nation” is derived from the Latin, to be born), it is obvious that replacement-level immigration will result in the long-term erasure of the national/native population. Although the vote was targeted against White, European immigrants, to many of the Leave voters, it was an avatar for all immigration and primarily immigration from the developing world. It was, however, manifested in the desire to limit immigration of Europeans, a group from which the British nation is derived. In this sense, then, the vote was not explicitly manifested in anyway as a rejection of multiculturalism, however, it is discernible that the motivation from a large portion of the electorate was such a rejection.



    • Hi Isaac, thanks for your comment. You’re right to highlight the tensions over how ‘taking back control’ manifested itself: which lines should be drawn where and from which populations immigration should be reduced. I think a prevailing sentiment amongst Leave voters was the opposition of working class voters to the direct competition for their jobs – which in the UK is mostly white, Eastern European, low-skilled economic migrants.

      I don’t think a Leave voter’s rationale would have been, “we want to exclude people and be isolated” – the survival argument holds more sway, that voters perceived a threat to their national identity. However, the organic nation you describe can only be defined by the drawing of lines between populations, and is thus inherently exclusive. The drawing of those lines is subjective and malleable, so I would prefer a more open and inclusive consideration of ‘Britishness’. It is also my personal view that withdrawal from the European community limits the UK’s influence in international relations, and is thus isolationist.



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