by SUNDER KATWALA
Director, British Future
WE WILL have a new prime minister in a fortnight, and Theresa May’s successor will inherit the conundrum of the Brexit stalemate.
Whether the overwhelming favourite, Boris Johnson, or his rival Jeremy Hunt wins the Conservative leadership contest, their first 100 days will be dominated by the volatile drama of a deal, a delay or the dangers of a no-deal Brexit.
The focus on Brexit has overshadowed the opportunity for change on immigration. Prior to her three years in Downing Street, May was the longest-serving home secretary for 60 years. In many ways, being tough on immigration was her signature issue. And while the immigration debate has often been very polarised, those from every perspective agree that her record was one of significant failure.
A new report this week from British Future, Immigration after May: What should the new prime minister change? examines that record and looks at opportunities for change under a new leader.
May’s first thought when it came to immigration was how to cut the numbers. Yet her signature policy – the pledge to reduce net migration to below 100,000 – never came close to being met. A target that was missed for 37 quarters in a row created an enormous political headache. Since non-EU net migration, which was within the government’s control, was always above the tens of thousands on its own, leaving the EU will not change this.
The Conservative leadership contest has already seen a significant shift in language on immigration. Home secretary Sajid Javid has been clear he believes immigration has been good for Britain, telling the recent British Future and Eastern Eye event there was no point in a target that could never be met. In announcing that he would vote for Johnson over Hunt last weekend, Javid made a point of stressing his commitment to “an open, welcoming, skills-based immigration system”. That captured the shift in tone and a new centre of policy gravity for the post-May government.
On several immigration issues, May found herself close to being a minority of one in cabinet. So there is a strong consensus now to adopt an open approach to skilled migration from inside and beyond the EU; to attract international students; and to be more welcoming to those who want to work after they graduate. A new prime minister could adopt three priorities to rebuild confidence.
First, sensible immigration targets. Putting the net migration target out of its misery is an obvious move for May’s successor: what to replace it with is a bigger challenge. New ICM research for British Future shows a broad majority back dropping the net migration target in favour of an approach that chimes with the public’s instincts – that different flows of migration should be treated differently. Strikingly, it is a policy that commands majority support from Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat voters, and even from most of those who voted for the Brexit Party in the European elections.
Second, a much greater focus on citizenship and integration. Despite Johnson’s clumsiness in talking about those who do not speak English as a “first language”, the substantive point should be that universal English fluency is an important passport to economic, social and democratic participation in our society. Javid has said he would put “rocket boosters” under English-language teaching. If rumours prove accurate and he becomes the chancellor in a Johnson administration, he will be in charge of making sure the government puts its money where its mouth is on a new strategy for universal English fluency, a foundation for a proper integration strategy. The government has been agnostic about whether people become citizens: it should actively encourage citizenship, including for the three million Europeans in Britain, and celebrate those who choose to become British.
Third, the government needs to invest properly in the immigration system itself. The Windrush scandal undermined the prevailing assumption that the toughest approach to migration would always be popular. Rather, the public want controls that are effective and humane. Anger at the mistreatment of longtime UK residents from the Commonwealth was shared by those sceptical about the pace of migration. Structural and cultural reform of the Home Office will be more difficult than changing the tone, but there have been some isolated examples of good practice – including in the Syrian resettlement scheme – on which to build.
Changing public attitudes on immigration offer an opportunity for change. Most people are balancers, seeing both pressures and gains from immigration. Scepticism in how the government had done its job is combined with more nuanced approaches towards immigration itself. Those of us who believe that immigration has been good for Britain should welcome the change of language, and work to make sure it turns into real changes of policy too.