Immigration compromise will profit UK

Do you believe that the EU referendum was overwhelmingly about immigration? If so, you were almost certainly a Remain voter. For most Leavers, the main concern was democratic accountability. Immigration was a subset of that concern, one of many areas where people felt control had slipped from their hands.

If you are a Remainer, you may well be scoffing. Most of my pro-EU friends refuse to believe what I have just averred. They assure me, with Olympian authority, that “every Leaver I spoke to” was motivated by anti-immigration sentiment.

Well, we can swap anecdotes or we can look at empirical data. An exit poll was conducted on June 23. Lord Ashcroft’s field workers asked 12,369 people why they had just voted as they had. By far the biggest motivation for Leave voters was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”, with 49 per cent support. Control of immigration was a distant second at 33 per cent.

A ComRes survey published in the Sunday Mirror a few days later found that sovereignty had been the main motivation for 53 per cent of Leave voters, immigration for 34 per cent. For what it’s worth, the private polling that we ran during the campaign at Vote Leave was also in line with these figures.

We are in danger of making a false diagnosis and, in consequence, issuing a faulty prescription. The only reasonable way to interpret a 52-48 result is as an instruction to step back cautiously from Brussels. We should become a sovereign country again, repealing the 1972 European Communities Act — which, as prime minister Theresa May has pointed out, is the mechanism that imposes EU law on Britain. Having recovered our independence, though, there is no reason not to replicate some of our existing EU obligations through bilateral treaties.

A 52-48 split, it seems to me, is a mandate for a gradual and phased repatriation of power, not for a severing of all institutional links with the EU. Britain should withdraw from the structures of political union while retaining some of the current economic arrangements, including the prohibition on discrimination against the products of another EU state, which is the true basis of the single market.

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If, however, you start from the proposition that it was “all about immigration”, you will see things differently. You will prioritise cracking down on free movement over maximising our prosperity.

Don’t get me wrong: there is plainly a demand for more regulation of immigration. People want to feel that we are ultimately in charge of who enters Britain and in what numbers. But almost no one expects or wants to screw the tap completely shut. Again, we can swap anecdotes or we can look at hard evidence: 88 per cent of British people, according to a survey by British Future, want highly skilled EU workers to continue to come here, and 84 per cent want EU nationals already here, skilled or unskilled, to stay.

It ought to be possible to find a compromise on migration — for example, one that retains reciprocal rights to take up job offers without any presumption of permanent residence, family reunification or benefits claims.

Oddly, the most vocal opposition to such a compromise has come from committed Remain voters. Some are still fighting the referendum: “Don’t come to us looking for help, you racist liars — deliver on zero immigration.” Others appear to have come to believe their caricature of why people voted Leave.

The danger is that this caricature could come to inform government policy. So far, we have had only mood music. There are no hard proposals to restrict the numbers of foreign doctors or students, or to force companies to publish data on the nationalities of their employees. Still, the fact that these ideas were mooted at the Conservative party conference — all of them by ministers who had backed Remain — suggests a serious misunderstanding of what motivated Leavers. Even for Leavers mainly worried about immigration — trust me on this — the objection was not to European doctors or students.

On leaving the EU, we shall have an opportunity to maintain our trade with our European allies while opening our markets to the rest of the world. We can become a global entrepôt: free-trading, deregulated, competitive. But, if we insist on seeing the referendum as a vote for nativism and protectionism, we shall lose that opportunity. Worse, we might truly become the meaner country that pro-Europeans kept talking about during the campaign.

The writer is the author of ‘What Next?’, published next month

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