The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

31 Jan 2020

Politics and Society


Brexit Day opinion piece

Britain will leave the European Union today.

Leave voters will feel vindicated, but is Boris Johnson’s version of Brexit likely to satisfy? And will the Conservatives’ new working-class voters stay loyal in five years’ time?

Much depends on whether Johnson and the more globalising wing of the Brexit elite is willing to row back from their relatively pro-immigration, free-trading stance.

None of that matters now. Withdrawal will be followed by a period of negotiation with Brussels over the shape of Britain’s future relationship with the EU.

Johnson’s Conservatives will be ‘battling for Britain’ against Brussels, so voters will cheer him on.

Once the deal is signed, however, and especially if Brexit is an economic success, a new ‘betrayal’ storyline is likely to emerge from the populist right.

This threatens to peel voters off the Conservatives’ culturally-conservative flank, endangering their progress in ‘Red Wall’ constituencies.

How so?

First, no deal is perfect, and the Conservatives will have to bend in some ways in order to secure market access, be this on migration from the EU or on regulatory alignment.

Trade deals with the US and other countries will also entail sacrifices.

But the bigger issue is immigration.

A straw in the wind comes from Iain Duncan Smith, who warns that the Brexit side is ‘duty-bound’ to reduce the ‘unprecedented influx’ of recent decades by resisting the pro-immigration forces represented by the ‘liberal elite aided by some in the business world.’

As others and I have noted, immigration attitudes were a crucial predictor of who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

As Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley show, Ukip managed to forge a link between immigration, which voters cared greatly about, and the EU, which most didn’t notice.

Indeed, in 2017, I found that 40% of Leave voters ranked immigration as their most important issue compared to under five percent of Remainers.

In the British Election Study immigration attitudes are almost as strong a predictor of Referendum voting as feelings toward the EU.

It is now fairly well-established in the academic literature that views on immigration have little to do with personal economic circumstances.

The strongest correlations are with psychological and cultural dispositions to do with seeing difference as disorderly (‘authoritarianism’) and change as loss (what Karen Stenner calls ‘status quo conservatism’).

In a recent piece for a leading economics journal, Yotam Margalit notes the persistent failure of economic variables to explain individual-level variation in immigration attitudes or populist right support.

Experimental work shows that when white respondents are reminded of America becoming majority nonwhite in 2050, or told about rising rates of immigration, they respond in conservative fashion.

As I argue in my book Whiteshift, it is the interaction of Stenner’s personality types with higher rates of immigration and/or ethno-demographic change which tends to produce an anti-immigration response.

In a separate experiment from November 2017, I found that you can get half the British public to endorse an increase in immigration to 375,000 per year when you mention that 60% will be skilled – as compared to a low-migration option in which 20% are skilled.

But when you add information on the likely impact of this on Britain’s ethnic composition in 2060 (eight points less White British than under the low-migration option), support for the high immigration option plunges by around 25 points.

This is one reason why a focus on control and skilled immigration, wrapped up in the black box of an ‘Australian-style points system’, is unlikely to salve Leavers’ worries after a deal is inked.

Once the Remain threat is vanquished, many Leavers will expect migration to fall. If this fails to materialise, expect the importance of immigration, and thus populist pressure, to rise.

For instance, a survey I conducted with Simon Hix and Thomas Leeper just prior to the 2017 election when many Ukip voters had moved to the Conservatives asked: ‘When Britain officially leaves the EU, analysts believe the government will, for economic reasons, keep immigration levels at about the same level as now. If this were to occur, which party would you be inclined to support in the next general election?’

Approximately 26% of decided Leave voters said they would vote Ukip, not much different from the 25% of Leavers who did so in 2015.

This intimates we may see a backflow of populist voters out of the Conservative party. Answers were similar when we mentioned immigration would be reduced ‘a little’.

In other words, if immigration does not fall towards the average of 82,000 per annum favoured by Leave voters in the study, then a market is likely to open up for a 2015 Ukip-sized populist party.

Since the Conservatives have consolidated the Leave vote behind them, this means as much as a quarter of the Conservative electorate could be vulnerable to a new anti-globalist populist movement focusing on Brexit betrayal and immigration.

As the success of the Brexit Party in the 2019 European elections revealed, this vote can shift rapidly.

Hence the risks for a Johnson government which has abandoned the 100,000 immigration cap and may lower the £30,000 salary floor for skilled workers.

A lower salary requirement may make sense, as experts note, but a vague commitment to ‘reduce’ numbers with little follow-through is unlikely to keep the populist wolf from the door forever.

Australia and New Zealand, like Canada (where I’m from), admits twice the number of immigrants per capita as Britain.

Control is almost total as these countries are difficult to get to from a poor country. Yet the high rate of immigration has contributed to the same populism and polarization we find in Europe and America.

Rather than illegality, the restrictionist narrative focuses on house prices, segregation and congestion.

In New Zealand in 2017, Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party, in coalition with the populist right New Zealand First, won the election on a promise to slash immigration in half.

In Quebec, the national populist Coalition Avenir Québec won a majority in the 2018 provincial election, campaigning to cut, for the first time ever, the province’s immigration level.

Federally, the Canadian Conservative-Liberal divide on immigration-related questions has exploded from 10-15 points five years ago to around 50 points today.

Surveys find that views on immigration were the best predictor of support for Ontario’s populist Conservative premier Doug Ford in the 2018 election.

Control of immigration is important, but ultimately cannot compensate for the numerical reductions conservative voters seek.

Should a charismatic populist enter the fray a few years’ hence, the Conservative majority could vanish as the British electoral map is upended once again.

By Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, and author of Whiteshift: Immigration, Populism and the Future of White Majorities (Penguin/Abrams, 2019).


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