Voices: Voted Brexit? Bet you’re regretting that now

Not that I’d want to make any true Brexiteers hyperventilate or anything, but the much-quoted figure of a record half-million people adding to the population of the UK in the last year is only about half the story.

That’s because it is only the net number. A grand total of 1.1 million people are likely to have turned up in the UK in the year to June. More than a million! These are the people the anti-migration folk should arguably be concentrating on.

They are all legal, and the majority – 704,000 – from outside the EU. The number of “legal” migrants is about 10 times higher than the numbers crossing the English Channel in small boats or smuggled in lorries – which have caused controversy. Instead of banging on about them, the Brexiteers usually ignore the legal migration numbers. Not now, though.

So the one thing that you might have expected from Brexit, and which many no doubt voted for, hasn’t materialised. On the contrary. Rather than migration running, say, at the “tens of thousands” a year promised by the Conservatives after they first went into government in 2010, it is running at five times that level. That’s because British businesses and universities can’t run properly without migration.

We’ve simply not enough people, and too many jobs cannot be replaced by machines or AI. Absent some jump in the birth rate, this is the economic fact of life. We shouldn’t get upset about it because it’s made us richer, just like other great nations built on migration, such as the US and Australia.

Last year was an unusual year, but smoothing out the numbers over the past few years leaves an entirely legal and orderly net inflow of 200,000 to 250,000 per annum. This is high by most historical standards in the UK, and contributes to the rising proportion of the population not born in the UK.

Given that recent outflows have been affected by EU citizens returning home, and most of that trend must be spent by now, the net outward migration figures will probably drop quite sharply in 2023 and after. Some 560,000 people are estimated to have migrated from the UK in the same period, almost half of them – 275,000 – going back to the EU. So the net migration average may well push higher still, albeit not to the half million mark.

This is because there are some distortionary effects on the figures caused by the end of the pandemic, with a backlog of students arriving, for example, and the recent special Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine schemes inflating the stats – around 200,000 Ukrainians have fled the war and been mostly welcomed to the UK.

The fact is that our new post-Brexit “Australian points-based system” hasn’t reduced migration, as promised, but merely changed its composition, from EU workers to non-EU workers and students. There’s nothing intrinsic in a points-based system that will virtually stop migration, as was implied by folk such as Nigel Farage.

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And so it has proved – another false promise, though with the golden lining that net migration is helping to fill gaps in the labour market, for skilled and unskilled labour. Instead of fruit pickers coming from, say, Romania they are now being flown in from Indonesia, to give one rather extreme example. Is that what people voted for in 2016? Or would they now rather we left the fruit to rot in the fields?

The other irony about the promised boost Brexit was supposed to unleash, is that the only thing that is going to drive economic growth higher in the coming years is migration – helping to deliver an extra £6bn a year in tax revenues. Without migrants, from whatever source and whatever their motivation, the UK would be in for an even worse recession and even deeper cuts in its public services over the next decade.

If the UK ever did just abandon its obligations to accept refugees, and limit visa issuance to, say, 100,000 irrespective of any other considerations, then the country would be poorer as a result.

The Brexit experiment is failing even in its simplest and most crucial respects. It can only be made to work by crippling the economy still further. It’s this that should make people angry, not the migration numbers.