Britain has voted to leave the European Union. The weeks and months of highly spirited and at times rancorous political campaigning have shown just how deep the fissures that run through Britain really are. And the ultimate dividing line, the defining issue of the referendum, was not the economy, but immigration.
For all the other issues that were thrown up, this was a campaign about securing borders and controlling numbers. It was also about diversity. What mattered for so many people across the country from the once-great industrial heartlands of the UK, the long-ago thriving seaside resorts, fishing villages and mining towns, right through to the more prosperous and affluent parts of the country was the question about national identity – how comfortable citizens feel on the streets of modern Britain.
Many people, looking into a collective national mirror, were ill at ease with the image of Britain that stared back. The mood recalls the “too diverse” argument made back in 2004 by David Goodhart, who argued that the welfare state couldn’t survive if a society were too diverse because citizens are less willing to pay into a system that serves people with whom they can’t identify.
One of the central ideals of the European Union, the free movement of people across national state barriers for all its hundreds of millions of citizens, was among Britons’ biggest concerns. That was especially true for older generations, who have seen the country twice transformed in the post-war period, first by large-scale migration from the countries of the former British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s and, in the past decade, by migrants from newer EU accession states.
Net migration from the EU stands at 184,000 (the combined figure including migrants from both inside and outside the EU stands at 330,000). David Cameron had, of course, pledged to cut net migration to the tens of thousands and failed to deliver. Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, spoke about there being no upper limit on immigration. Clearly Cameron’s failure and Corbyn’s rejection of calls to clamp down worried some voters and angered others.
For the Leave camp, “taking back control of our borders” was a key mobilising slogan. Brexiters argue that Britain will be more able to control immigration outside of the EU.
While they stressed high immigration depressed wages especially for low-skilled workers, the leavers built much of their campaign on the quality of life argument – the idea that immigration had stretched public services beyond the point of adequate delivery. The solution for the Leavers was clear: to quit the EU and implement an Australian-style points based system for all newcomers from inside and outside the EU.
The remainers tried to talk around the immigration question for as long as possible, focusing instead on the economy. But faced with the blunt force of the Leave campaign’s message on immigration and genuine public anxiety, they could avoid it no longer.
A nation divided
They argued that EU migrants contributed more to the UK economy in tax than they took out in benefits. They said Britain could (and indeed Cameron had) negotiated a deal to restrict the benefits for EU migrant workers. And rather more half-heartedly, they argued that immigration was on the whole good for the economy.
But what good is a few extra quid in your pocket, the Brexiters argued, when within a generation your entire world has become unrecognisable? People feel out of place in their own country. Britain, as Goodhart said, is simply too diverse.
This message was delivered most explicitly by Nigel Farage’s poster of a serpent of dark-skinned migrants heading Britain’s way simply read “Breaking Point”. It was identified by some as the lowest point in the increasingly rancorous campaign.
The referendum is over, and its message is clear: this is a nation divided, polarised along old faultlines of class, wealth and geography that have been driven open by globalisation. Those who have benefited from the free movement of information, capital, goods and people have little in common, it seems, with those left behind.
While some on the Remain side saw most Brexiters as parochial little-Englanders mired in false nostalgia and withdrawing into defensive insularity, many on team Leave were equally contemptuous of their rivals, who they saw as rich denizens of a cosmopolitan elite who dabble in difference when they fancy it, knowing they can always afford to shut it out. The pressure on public services, school places, the NHS, and so on is only felt by those who cannot afford to go private.
This was a de facto referendum on immigration and its attendant cultural anxieties about the changing face of Britain. These feelings are sincere, and they will not go away. Its verdict is clear: we can no longer put off an informed, robust and open-minded conversation about immigration, diversity and identity – however painful.