At the end of 2021 there were 9.6mn people living in Britain who were born overseas, or 14.5 per cent of the population. During the same year, almost one million visas were issued to people seeking to come and work, study or live in the UK. All of these figures are the highest they have ever been.
Cast your mind back to June 2016, and the idea that Brexit — a cause shot through with anti-immigration rhetoric — would result in a greater number of foreign nationals entering the UK than before the referendum would seem fanciful, yet that is where we will most likely find ourselves this year.
Perhaps even more surprising is that the increase has not been met with outrage from the millions whose votes to leave the EU were motivated primarily by concerns about immigration. Indeed, one of the most striking dynamics in the past five years has been the decoupling of concern about immigration from immigration levels themselves.
For three decades leading up to the Brexit referendum, the share of people naming immigration among the most important issues facing the UK moved virtually in lockstep with the number of foreign nationals arriving. Suddenly, the two diverged. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of immigrants to the UK was broadly unchanged, yet the share of Britons concerned about immigration plummeted from almost half to one in seven.
The best explanation is that British views on immigration have always been far more than a simple numbers game. Research by the think-tank British Future has consistently found much stronger public support for an immigration policy that prioritises who is allowed in — regardless of the impact on overall numbers — than one that deters all comers.
There has also been a sharp reversal in the perception of immigrants. Ten years ago, only one in four felt that immigrants were necessary to help the UK’s economic recovery; half felt they hampered it by taking away jobs from Britons. In 2022, those shares have switched places, according to a new British Future report to be published this month.
These dynamics suggest the post-Brexit switch from free movement to a points-based system for EU citizens sits well with national attitudes, simultaneously emphasising control and highlighting immigrants’ roles in British society.
The government’s controversial plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda has not gone down so well. Aside from its expense, infeasibility and the fact that it may well exacerbate the problem, it also draws attention to small boat crossings, the one factor over which the government does not have any control.
Most Britons say they sympathise with migrants crossing the channel, and support for a deterrence approach to asylum seekers is low and falling. By using an unpopular policy to increase the salience of an issue without a current solution, the government risks creating a rod for its own back.