One of the recurring themes of Brexit since 2016 has been bewilderment and incredulity on the part of Remainers as to the obdurate resistance of the Leave camp to any arguments pointing out how much worse off Britain will be as a result of leaving the EU. The ‘divided nation’ description has become commonplace as discussion of this issue has left the two positions increasingly entrenched – it seems that rational argument over economic self-interest has the effect of deepening the divide rather than resolving it. The simple reason for this is that one side of the divide, a significant proportion of the Leave camp, isn’t particularly interested in the idea of being better or worse off economically. They want something else.
A January 2019 piece in The Guardian laid bare the thinking behind this. Nantwich and Crewe constituent Geoffrey Chesters was clear in his thinking ‘A no-deal Brexit was going to make everyone poorer, he said. But it was worth it, if it meant the UK got control over immigration. That’s why he voted to leave the European Union: “We’ve got too many of them coming over here and I want it to stop.”’ And that encapsulates the xenophobic component of the Leave position. Nor is Mr. Chesters under any illusion as to the real nature of the ‘debate’ that preceded the 2016 referendum: ‘The 73-year-old former builder and engineer said he had been lied to by the leave campaign. “They didn’t tell us the true facts. They kept us in the dark like mushrooms and fed us bullshit,” he said. “We voted because of immigration and we didn’t realise how poor we would be. It will be terrible but I still want it, because of immigration.”’
Of course, not all the xenophobes who supported Brexit expect to be significantly worse off. The Conservative party members attracted to the ambiguous certainties espoused (now and then, at least) by Boris Johnson are predominantly retired and well-heeled. They believe their pensions are bullet-proof and will insulate them against any economic damage that Brexit might bring. Their xenophobia is more nostalgic than vitriolic, but it represents the rationale of a broad swathe of the electorate. Higher prices in the Supermarket are worth paying if Brexit halts the ‘tide’ of immigration against which Theresa May’s hostile environment has been so ineffectual.
These and other components in the xenophobic Brexit vote should have come as no surprise to politicians. After all, offered the chance to vote on foreigners and things foreign, the electorate had been happy to return Nigel Farage and other UKIP or Brexit Party MEPs to Brussels in EU elections. They balked at returning these same figures to parliament in general elections, but to them the referendum was just another vote on foreigners and things foreign.
Politicians had been either unwilling or unable to tell the truth about immigration for many years. It was the same during the referendum and it has been the same since, on both sides of the Brexit divide and on both sides of the political divide. Nobody wants to own up to the simple fact that the UK economy is structurally addicted to immigration and can’t function without it. Since the referendum, as immigration from within the EU has reduced so immigration from elsewhere has increased. Meanwhile, rather than addressing the overall issue in the way that they should, politicians adopt a below-the-radar piecemeal approach, a category by category piecemeal prevarication that promises to support different segments of the labour force at different times: doctors, financial workers, high earners, low paid agricultural workers etc. etc..
So what does this mean for Mr. Chester and his fellow Brexiteering xenophobes? The answer, deal or no deal, is simple: disappointment. We will be worse off or very much worse off according to the terms of our final departure; immigration will continue much as before. Against a background of worsening economic conditions, having ‘delivered Brexit’, no politician will then have the courage to deliver on its subtext: ending immigration. That would mean destroying whole industries and sectors, starting with the NHS, moving on to finance and so on. And for others, perhaps the most spectacularly ill-informed of the Brexit xenopohobes, there is simply no chance at all of any politician delivering on their dark fantasy, sending the immigrants home. These people are mentioned in the Guardian piece, they are already ‘home’, many of them have become British citizens and are here to stay.
Politicians can take an important step towards arresting this kamikaze dance of the lemmings by telling the truth, the whole truth, about immigration, something they have signally failed to do thus far.