The migration numbers are coming down. Everyone is seemingly very happy about it. Anti-immigration figures are happy about it. The people who privately support immigration but feel they have to ‘respect the views on the doorstep’ are happy about it. The prime minister, who prioritises the reduction of immigration above all other concerns, is happy about it. In a profoundly divided country, you would be hard pushed to find an issue on which everyone is so united. Immigration figures must come down.
This is the first glimpse of success for the reduce-migration-at-all-costs campaign. Sure, a record number of Romanians and Bulgarians came. Sure, the figures overall are not statistically significant. But they do constitute, for the first time in four years, a decline in the annual numbers. The referendum appears to be an important factor. In the immediate wake of the decision, there was a 12,000 increase in Poles and other eastern Europeans going home compared to the year before. An extra 11,000 people from outside the EU also left. Fewer people chose to come here, including 41,000 international students, mostly from outside the EU.
It is perfectly likely that we are seeing the start of a decline in migration as a result of Brexit. Certainly that is what most people in the media and even government are saying. It is not an unreasonable conclusion to come to. What’s unreasonable is their happiness over it.
TV viewers overseas saw the reports about racial and xenophobic abuse in Britain on the news. Many decided it was not the place they were told it was. It wasn’t somewhere tolerant and peaceful and orderly, where you would not be judged for your race or your caste or your religion. It wasn’t somewhere where you could work hard, struggling by on a pittance, but maybe eventually be able to buy a shop, be able to send your children to university and watch them become doctors or lawyers. Maybe it wasn’t a country of opportunity at all. Maybe it was somewhere dangerous, where you would not be welcome, because of your accent, or the colour of your skin, or your religion.
The experience was more emotional for those who were already here. Most of the Europeans I know still burn with fury over what has happened: Poles, Czechs, Germans, French, Spanish, Italian. People who came and contributed and felt at home here. And now suddenly home is not home.
It is hardest for the eastern Europeans, of course. They know the British people are not angry about having too many German architects. They know that so much of this is targeted at them. People who came here and worked, who played by the rules, who were as similar to the English as you’re likely to get. Some saw the violence and abuse on the streets. Some did not but they heard about it.
Others avoided the more pernicious elements of what happened. They simply felt the rejection. Europeans who had lived here for decades, suddenly feeling unwanted in their home. People who had thought highly of the English, of the deep sense of fair play and stability that England provides, now suddenly uncertain of the nature of the country and their place in it. When they sent off applications for permanent residence, to which they were perfectly entitled, they often received a Home Office response suggesting they prepare to leave – something which happened regularly enough for it to look more like conspiracy than cock-up. Others were given impenetrable forms, running for dozens of pages, demanding they cite every holiday over years. Others were suddenly embroiled in rows about whether NHS use counted as health insurance.
The Home Office hadn’t set up a system to help them, despite being perfectly aware of the tidal wave of requests which were likely to come their way. The inadequacy of the official response confirmed the sense that the authorities viewed them as a problem, not an asset. And at the top level, ministers played with their lives as if they were pieces on a chess board. Liam Fox called them one of our “main cards” in Brexit negotiations. Theresa May refused to offer them assurances.
So now the numbers are declining and we’re supposed to be happy about it. Happy that people have seen violence and abuse on our streets and decided not to come, happy that people have felt uncomfortable and rejected by a country they have lived in for years.
I’m not happy about it. Those figures constitute workers who will not contribute to Britain’s economy, who will not set up a company, or become a doctor, or oversee a research project, or take a risk on a shop, or open a restaurant, or fall in love here, or make friends here, or bring their food and music here – or, yes, work in labouring, or fruit picking, or social care, or many of the other seemingly menial jobs which allow them to start saving and send money home and do the jobs people need doing .
And this country won’t be able to have an impact on them. It won’t bring to their lives the unique things which Britain provides, the ways in which it makes people more restrained and more accepting, the liberating sense of stability it provides, the balance between social and individual rights, the engrained suspicion of the state, the wariness of absolute thought in politics or religion, the sense of irony, and privacy, and mutual respect. It will not be able to continue improving a world it has retreated from.
All these things will be lost, because we must reduce immigrant numbers at all costs. The great vision of Britain which had been growing for the last few decades, of a country which could show the world how to be open and successful, is fading away. And now the immigrant numbers are starting to come down. We are increasingly seen as hard and insular and prejudiced. And we’re meant to celebrate it.
Ian Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk. His book - Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now? - is out now from Canbury Press.