Much of the comment during and after the referendum claimed that both the vote to leave and the leave campaign was all about the issue of immigration. That was a tactical decision, so that leave voters could be designated as xenophobic and therefore voters fearing such a taint would vote remain and after the vote it gave those in denial a stick with which to beat the victorious side. I will set out in this chapter that the evidence even of those in denial after the vote runs counter to the claim that the leave campaign and leave voting was all about immigration. I will also do what the remain campaign singularly failed to do and that is to address the pressures that immigration has brought to bear on the UK's society and economy. Before doing that it is necessary to make a distinction that was so often missing in the campaigns and in the response to the vote. There are three quite separate issues that were being addressed under the catch-all term of immigration and it is vital that they are clearly distinguished. Those three issues are refugees, non-EU immigration, and freedom of movement within the EU. A fourth issue connected to asylum seekers is the migrant crisis that erupted just as David Cameron was beginning his negotiations with the European Council.


Concerns about immigration are a major issue for many countries around the world and not just those in Europe. The issues of how to deal with large numbers of those not born in your country being integrated into your society are present regardless of the reason for someone arriving in the country. However the major source of very large numbers of immigrants is usually connected to war, persecution, or natural disasters forcing people to flee their own country. Although such people are technically immigrants in the sense of migrating into your country, it is best to use a distinct term such as refugee. International law protects the rights of refugees so many will seek to claim that designation even when it does not apply. This brings in the additional category of asylum seekers as a way of distinguishing those who are claiming refugee status, but whose claims are still being assessed. The asylum claim process can take many years, especially if an initial claim is rejected and the case is appealed. If all avenues of appeal are exhausted then the claimant would be judged an economic migrant with no right to remain in the UK and will be scheduled for deportation.

The status of refugees within the debate was ignored, although Leave.EU campaigner Nigel Farage sought to make capital of the fallout among EU governments over the handling of the migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. His Breaking Point poster used a Getty Images agency photograph that had appeared in several national newspapers that depicted a long line of refugees marching north. It had already been condemned as racist and reminiscent of Nazi propaganda before news came through of the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox. With campaigning suspended for two days as a mark of respect Farage did not have much time to argue against those who sought to silence his campaigning point about the EU failing refugees through the mishandling of the Aegean migrant crisis by German chancellor Angela Merkel.

The ultimate cause of the march depicted on that poster was the worsening migrant crisis in the Aegean Sea. Greece, and therefore the EU, has a land border with Turkey, but it is narrow and easy to defend. So migrants were, and still are, sailing from Turkey's west coast into the Aegean Sea with the hope of reaching Greek islands such as Lesbos. This crisis began to reach unmanageable proportions in June 2015 just as David Cameron was launching his attempts to re-negotiate the UK's membership of the EU. So while this refugee crisis received even less attention during the referendum campaign than the results of Cameron's renegotiation it was an important backdrop to the whole process. The hard-line approach that Merkel negotiated with Turkey appeared to slow the number of refugees down to more manageable levels and the crisis had mostly abated by Spring 2016, but that meant that it continued to be a problem in the early weeks of the referendum campaign. Indeed the February 2016 European Council summit where Cameron's renegotiation led to the launch of the referendum campaign and a month into the campaign the council met again to deal with the Turkish proposal on handling the migrant crisis in the Aegean.

West Germany was one of the founding members of the EU and the reunified Germany is considered to own that heritage as part of the Inner Circle. That reunification caused a problem in that it made Germany much larger by population than France or the UK, although the Germany population is projected to go through a sharp decline in the next 40 years unless there is a very large level of inward migration. The reunification chancellor Helmut Kohl was careful to underplay Germany's hand, but that has not been the approach of Angela Merkel. The financial collapse of 2008 changed everything in that regard and the Eurozone has struggled since to rescue its weaker members, including Italy one of the EU founders.

The financial crisis in the Eurozone has led to German efforts to force strict austerity on other countries and in the case of Greece to a, thankfully failed, attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government. That was followed in 2015 with Merkel's disastrous policy of announcing that any Syrians who reached Germany would be granted asylum. This led to a march of thousands through south eastern and central Europe that has ruptured relationships between those countries and Germany and led to a rise in support for eurosceptic parties and policies. It is that ill thought out policy rather than the refugees themselves that lay behind Nigel Farage's much misunderstood Breaking Point poster.

The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign was based around staying focused on the economy, while impugning the leave campaign with accusations of xenophobic banging on about immigration. That meant that the refugee issue was not dealt with in the campaign, partly due to Cox's death derailing Farage's attempt to turn the debate in that direction in the penultimate weekend of the campaign. Yet even Farage only brought in the refugee angle as a prelude to the final week of the campaign. Vote Leave did raise Turkey as an issue, but it was about them joining the EU, not the people traffickers using that country to bring vulnerable people through the dangerous Aegean Sea route. It was a major failure on both sides that the still on-going migrant crisis was almost entirely absent from their campaigns. That allowed confusion between refugees and other immigrants in the minds of the electorate, which had the side effect of relegating the migrant crisis to something for the rest of the EU to deal with. More attention to the issue of refugees could have ameliorated asylum seekers and refugees being caught up in any negativity caused by immigration based referendum campaigning, as well as stressing a stronger ethical aspect to welcoming foreigners.

Non-EU Immigrants

At present it is necessary to distinguish between EU and non-EU immigrants as there are separate rules for them, although when the UK's departure from the EU is finalised that distinction is likely to disappear. Non-EU immigrants make up about 50% of the total number who immigrate to the UK each year. They lack the international legal protection given to refugees and so must fulfil one or other of the criteria for immigration set by the UK government. They might arrive as a family member of someone who already has the right to remain in the UK, or to take up a job in a shortage sector, or on a student visa that permits limited working hours to help with living expenses. The slogan of the Vote Leave campaign of Take Back Control was in part designed to indicate that their immigration was to encourage immigration, but to have controls on migrants from EU countries in the same way that there are controls on immigration from non-EU countries.

Non-EU immigrants were not merely an illustration of how future migration from EU countries might operate. They were also a key issue for many non-EU minorities who struggled to bring close family members to the UK, because of the weight of numbers caused by unlimited migration from EU countries. It was a measure of the failure of the remain campaign that its activists criticised leave campaigners mentioned this issue as playing the immigration card. Had remain campaigners not been so worried about engaging with the issue of immigration they might have been able to explain how EU freedom of movement and non-EU immigration, especially from the British Commonwealth, could be made to work better together. Instead Britain Stronger in Europe decided that their only hope of victory was to contrast the economic benefits of the EU with the allegedly immigration focused leave campaign.

The official figures for non-EU immigration are net migration, i.e., the number of people arriving from outside the EU minus the number of UK residents who move to a non-EU country. Had the remain campaign been less concerned about avoiding the immigration discussion they could have spoken of the positives of those who were able to move from the UK and the assistance that this is in the success of UK businesses. Instead they pushed the line that immigration was a concern for white xenophobes and assumed that all ethnic minorities would support remain, despite the presence of non-white and non-UK born politicians in prominent positions in the leave campaigns.

EU Immigrants

Most of the discussion about immigration during the referendum was about EU migrants who arrived on the EU's freedom of movement principle. That is one of the four freedoms of the EU as defined in the founding Maastricht Treaty: free movement of goods, free movement of capital, movement of people, and free provision of services. The free movement of people within the EU illustrates the contradiction that has lain at the heart of the European integration process since the Maastricht Treaty. That treaty was a hasty response to the reunification of Germany and the collapse of the communism in Eastern Europe.

The major contention point of the immigration side of the referendum campaign was, naturally enough, about EU immigration. This immigration comes under the terms of the freedom of people to move from one EU country to another. This freedom has existed since the establishment of the EU under the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, but it was not until the accession of former Warsaw Pact countries to the EU in 2004 that the numbers moved towards the 100000 mark. That is a net number, so the immigration numbers are affected by the emigration of UK residents to other countries. This was seen in the near record numbers of immigrants in 2015 being driven not so much by more people arriving in the UK, but by less leaving it.

Politicians and pundits were quite clear during the campaign and in the interpretations after the vote that immigration was a major issue. Whether it was it something that we will never know, because that question was not on the ballot paper. Opinion polls might produce percentages of respondents who placed immigration as the major reason for their decision, but opinion polls were notoriously inaccurate in this referendum, just as they have been in most elections in living memory. Yet in the aftermath of the vote media, politicians, and activists cite percentages from opinion polls as if they are infallible proof, despite those same polling companies failing to predict the leave majority that they are now so authoritatively supposed to have interpreted. Immigration was a key issue in much of the leave campaigning and was largely kept out of the remain campaign, yet as with everything else in analysing the result the picture is nowhere near as clear as many are presenting it.

David Cameron's changing stance on immigration as a key issue is illustrative of how hard it is to pin down the relative importance of that subject. He asserted prior to his negotiations with the European Council that if he did not gain a new deal that he was happy with that he would personally campaign to leave the EU. He ended up with a deal that he was so happy with that he campaigned with unswerving devotion for remain. Oddly his campaigning was based entirely on economic issues that had nothing to do with any of the changes that the EU would be making if the UK voted remain. Immigration was the most contentious issue in his European Council renegotiations, because it had the potential to negatively impact on the citizens of other EU states who had used freedom of movement rules to settle in the UK. Two of the changes he negotiated were unrelated to immigration: enhanced protection for EU countries outside the Eurozone and a UK opt out from the requirement to move towards ever closer union. The two immigration related changes concern benefit payments rather than any restrictions on movement: an emergency brake on paying in-work benefits to EU migrants that may only be applied in very limited circumstances and index linking of child benefit payments for children of UK residents who still reside in another EU country. That new deal was less than Cameron hoped for, but had he not been granted even that he had promised to campaign for a leave vote. He did gain that limited deal and returned to launch into an aggressive remain campaign that avoided mentioned immigration when at all possible.

Cameron's campaign strategy was clear: keep to the economic arguments and accuse the leave campaign of banging on about immigrants. The problem for this approach was that the leave campaigns were not playing ball. Even with Nigel Farage the focus was not all about immigration. He was known for two primary contributions to the campaign: his Battle of the Thames over the economic issue of fishing rights and his Breaking Point poster that criticised the EU's mishandling of the migration crisis that erupted while Cameron was laying the groundwork for his renegotiation. Meanwhile the official Vote Leave campaign took as its slogan Let's Take Back Control. That included control of immigration, but was a more general issue about giving control of running the UK back to its own parliaments and courts. The most spoken against part of the Vote Leave campaign was its claim that 350 million pounds per week was sent by the UK to the EU, which was an economic argument. Vote Leave did switch to a stronger immigration focus in addressing the potential EU membership of Turkey and that was strongly criticised at the time, but most of the remain criticism after the result was on the 350 million claim.

Therefore even looking at the campaigns does not provide evidence of a central focus on immigration in bringing victory to the leave side. In addition the campaigns are marketing programmes not party political manifestos, so the content of the campaigns may have very little bearing on the votes of the electorate. Since the vote to leave the EU the people who speak most about campaign claims are those who voted remain and want a different result due to the leave campaign claims. There is limited evidence being brought forward of leave voters proclaiming that I was uncertain until I was helped by the wonderfully informative leave campaign. So even if the leave campaign presented clear evidence of a central focus on immigration it would not be proof that immigration was the central issue in the minds of leave voters.

For the sake of this discussion let us presume that immigration was the decisive issue, so that we can go on to assess to question of what immigration this refers to. After the result many disappointed remain activists have imputed racist or at least xenophobic motives to leave voters. That in itself-implies that all leave voters considered immigration to be the central issue. Yet if a xenophobic focus on immigration explains all leave votes, why are remain activists so concerned about the economic claims about the 350 million payment? If their is ambivalence in the remain activists' complaints about the leave campaign, then it cannot be take as read that all immigration focus is xenophobic.

Before tackling the issue of xenophobia the most extreme accusation of racism should be addressed. Racism is the judging of someone negatively or the direct or indirect discrimination against them on the basis of their perceived racial or ethnic origins. Remain activists have been very keen to point out that Scotland and Northern Ireland voted remain, but less are keen to consider what those nations might reveal about an accusation of racism. In Victorian England the most virulent racism was against the Irish as epitomised in Charles Kingsley's efforts to train English children in this racism through his book The Water Babies. Prior to EU expansion to former communist countries the Irish were the largest migrant group in the UK and the Irish continue to be second only to the Polish. Those figures exclude those born in Northern Ireland as they are not migrants into the UK. Racist attitudes against the Irish in England have not disappeared, but leaving the EU will not stop Irish immigration as there has been freedom of movement between independent Ireland and the UK ever since that independence took effect in 1922. A further problem with the accusation of racism is how this distinguishes between Poles who arrived in England in the 1940s from those who arrived under EU freedom of movement rules since 2004.

Seeing any statement about a member of another race as racist does not serve the cause of eradicating racism. An overzealous rush to accuse political opponents cheapens the charge of racism and therefore blunts its force when applied to clearly racist behaviour. Accusing Nigel Farage's Breaking Point poster of being racist because it lacks anyone of a pale white complexion increases the likelihood that white people will not speak up for non-whites because of the tendency to knee jerk accusations of racism. What was most disturbing in the reaction to the poster was the level to which its condemnation went viral across the political spectrum. That spread suggests that the rules of the social media jungle now prevail in politics, because politicians fear that British journalism is little more than a slightly enhanced version of a social media storm. The rules of the social media jungle are that you need to pronounce on something quickly because what is said first is more likely to trend that the carefully considered response. Once an opinion is trending those who wish to appear on trend repeat the claim without examining it and many are scared off pointing out problems in the claim for fear of a social media pile on accusing them of defending the indefensible. The extent to which social media has taken over politics was evident in one photograph from the night of the referendum as a group of female remain MPs sit together. They are not speaking to each other as each is too busy reading updates on her smart phone.

An atmosphere in which a poster saying the EU has failed us all and depicts migrants is interpreted as racist rather than a critique of the EU handling of the migrant crisis does not help migrants, whatever their apparent ethnic origin. The reaction to the Breaking Point poster began with the assumption that Farage is racist (he is not) and any mention of migrants must be an anti-immigration argument (it is not). It was not helped by those who proclaimed their self-proclaimed research skills by pointing out that the poster depicts refugees not immigrants and they are approaching the Slovenian border, not the UK. The problem for such social media researchers is that Farage launched the poster talking about Slovenia and made clear that the poster was an attack on the present EU asylum policy and in particular how it was being skewed by Angela Merkel. That is a reference to the dissatisfaction of Slovenia, Hungary, and Austria with Merkel's encouragement for refugees to come to Germany causing thousands to march through their countries in a journey that was unsafe for all of them.

Racist campaigning can only fit that definition if it advocates discrimination on the grounds of race. Criticism of a flawed response to the migrant crisis in the summer of 2015 is not racist. Calling for an ability for the UK to manage the flow of immigrants is not racist. Calling for security checks when migrants entered the EU rather than when they arrived in Germany is not racist. Figures from Germany suggest that a high proportion of asylum seekers arriving in 2015 were rejected because they were not Syrian, with a large proportion being Albanians hoping that Germany would give them asylum as well. It would have been kinder to those Albanians to reject them at the start rather than the end of their northwards trek through central Europe. It would also have been kinder to Hungary and Austria to determine that all those marching were refugees. It is not racist to point out a failed and dangerous political policy.

There is little to no evidence of any leave campaigners conducting a racist campaign, but was it xenophobic? Xenophobia is the fear of the stranger and would involve promoting the leave cause by reference to foreigners being dangerous. There were some clear examples of this, such as Farage warning that mass sex assaults such as happened on New Year's Eve in Cologne could happen in a British city if the UK remains in the EU. That warning was xenophobic because it was based on generating a fear of young men coming from parts of the world that have not been impacted by feminism in that same way as the UK has. The xenophobia was increased up by voiced the fear of so many such young male strangers arriving in the UK that they changed the UK culture and undo a hundred years of progress in women's rights. That is invoking the fear of foreigners overwhelming the host culture due to their numbers and presuming that the outcomes would be negative for the host population. That was a clear example of xenophobic campaigning and should be condemned. It is harder, however, to condemn it if every call to improve immigration policy is interpreted as being equally xenophobic.

Concern about immigration that focuses on all members of a particular ethnic group regardless of any other factor (e.g., birthplace, qualifications, or employment status) would constitute racism. Calling for action against all members of a certain nationality who were born outside the UK would be xenophobic, in that it is a fear of someone culturally strange. Asserting the need to control the number of migrants arriving in the UK is a policy opinion and is therefore neither racist nor xenophobic.

The incorrect basis of the accusation of xenophobia against leave campaigners and voters can be seen when compared to the immigration aspects of David Cameron's renegotiations with the European Council immediately before the referendum campaign was launched. The first immigration related aspect an emergency brake from paying benefits for a certain after a migrant arrives from another EU country, where the UK is struggling to cope with the impact of a large number of arrivals, which is causing strains in housing supply, educational places, or welfare expenditure. The second immigration related aspect was the gradual move towards linked out of state child benefit payments to the level of child benefit available in the country in which the child resides. Both of these are trying to reduce pull factors that attract migrants to relocate to the UK, but which avoid introducing any limits on the principle of freedom of movement. These policies, one temporary and the other permanent, are designed to reduce the volume of migration rather than prevent freedom of movement. Therefore neither policy is xenophobic as it is not invoking a fear of the stranger, but seeking to regulate the strain on the UK national budget.

Most concerns about immigration in the referendum campaign were expressed about the problem caused by the weight of numbers. Typical concerns were wage rates being driven down, unemployment rising, hospital waiting times increasing, and school places harder to find. Each of those matters are matters of economic policy as they relate to strain on local communities due to public services and employment regulation not responding quickly enough to deal with changing realities. These concerns are very similar to those that lie behind the emergency brake and index linked child support in Cameron's deal. Neither these concerns nor Cameron's deal are xenophobic. It may be, as Jeremy Corbyn asserted, that leaving the EU is not the best way to deal with these concerns, but raising them and seeing a leave vote as the answer are not examples of xenophobia.

Cameron had negotiated changes that would deal with some of the concerns of those worried about present immigration policy. His problem was that Britain Stronger in Europe was so fearful of addressing immigration concerns that the re-negotiated deal was seldom promoted by the remain campaign. Another tactical error was that Cameron had declared that the EU referendum was a once in a generation attempt to settle the question of EU membership. That made him a hostage to fortune: if a voter felt that the immigration aspects of his re-negotiated deal were insufficient he had in effect told them that their only option for a generation was to vote leave.

The framing of the referendum debate as economy vs immigration was not just a remain campaign strategy, but also reflects the way in which the media reported both the campaign and the aftermath of the result. For the remain supporting media this meant stigmatising the leave focus on immigration as xenophobic and as a result immigration was not properly addressed as an issue. The remain campaign also felt that the immigration issue should not be addressed as they expected leave to win any argument on that topic. That was a good assessment of the situation by the remain campaign and its media backers, but only because of the skewed attitude they took to the immigration question.

Leave reiterated time and again that they wanted control of borders rather than being against immigration. That is hardly surprising when Vote Leave was chaired by a German (Gisela Stuart) and Leave.EU was fronted by the husband of a German (Nigel Farage). Yet the remain campaign and media could not see beyond an equation between immigration and hatred of foreigners. This meant that there was attempt to discuss immigration by the remain side, but more worryingly they were indirectly validating xenophobic attitudes. If a leave vote is a vote for xenophobia and parliament sanctioned a referendum in which leave and remain were the only options then parliament determined that xenophobia was a valid option. Even 2 days before the referendum in the set piece televised debate at Wembley Arena the remain side, represented by Ruth Davidson and Sadiq Khan, talked up being a positive open society. Post referendum media comments spoke of this as leaving the positive side of the EU too late in the campaign, but the problem was the opposite. It illustrated a failure to rise above the level of social media mud slinging at leave opponents. The first rule of successful negotiation is that you engage with the views of those you seek to persuade. The remain side before and after the referendum took the attitude of decrying any discussion of immigration as racist and any desire to leave the EU as hating Europeans. The collective listening failure on the part of the remain side meant that their campaign was correct to think that they would lose any argument on immigration, but the reason they would lose is not that leave supporters would not listen, but that remain campaigners refused to treat leave supporters as worthwhile conversation partners.

Remain campaigners' refusal to engage did not just lose the vote, but validated the actual xenophobic and racist attacks after the result. It is hard to ask someone not to be xenophobic at the same time as telling them that the box they have already crossed on the ballot paper proves that they are xenophobic. What remain should have been doing is to talk up the nuance without worrying that it would cost votes. The reality is that the failure to talk up the nuance probably cost them victory. The missing nuance was to point out that voting against the EU is not being anti-European, but then going on to say why people should vote to stay in the EU. Or saying that raising questions about the impact of unlimited EU immigration on public services is neither xenophobic or racist and then going on to explain ways in which the EU principle of freedom of movement can be better accommodated within the ways that public services are funded and run in the UK. Telling the person you are trying to persuade to vote remain that they are a racist idiot does not win their vote; it loses you the right to be heard. The remain campaign and its media supporters was too much about social control of the unwashed masses and not enough of being sociable to those who thought differently.

The issue of immigration may dominate the UKIP policy for campaigning to leave the EU, but pro-immigration policies could be enhanced by leaving the EU. Currently the UK has to be more restrictive on English-speaking parts of the world, because of the requirements to allow unlimited movement of EU citizens. The only other English-speaking part of the EU is Ireland, but there are long-standing agreements that treat Irish immigration into the UK differently to other forms of immigration. In relation to other English speaking parts of the world immigration policy is tending towards only allowing the middle class to immigrate due to income level restrictions. This makes it harder for immigration to continue from poorer parts of the world that are English speaking due to the legacy of the British (or more accurately English) Empire. UK immigration policy has been forced to become much harsher because of the open door for EU citizens. This also impacts reciprocal policies in English speaking countries to which UK citizens may wish to move.

British Migrants in the EU

Discussions of numbers often assumed that there were as many British in the EU as EU migrants in the UK, but research after the referendum reduced the figure from 1.2 million to 900,000 meaning that there were more Polish citizens in the UK than there were UK citizens in the rest of the EU. Another fallacy was that British migrants were mostly old and requiring higher levels of health expenditure without contributing the economy, whereas EU immigrants in the UK were seen as young workers. That same post referendum research showed that working age people made up the majority of UK nationals living in other EU countries.

Racism and Xenophobia

Disgruntled remain campaigners among both politicians and pundits are making hay in the aftermath of the vote to leave the EU with claims that it has led to an upsurge in racism. One particularly confused example came in The Independent, where Lizzie Deardon links a video of drunken teenagers in Manchester abusing a perceived immigrant on a tram by telling him to go back to Africa. This is set in the context of an apparent rise in racist incidents since the Brexit vote, although Deardon does not explain what abuse towards a perceived African has to do with a vote to leave the EU. Nor does she set it within the context it should have been given of similar incidents on London public transport in the previous twelve months, such as the woman of apparently African ethnicity who rants at Muslim women telling them they should never have moved to England and should return to their own country where there is bombing every day.

Journalists who twist news stories to fit their editor's desire to have a Brexit hate crime story are the true instigators of hate crime, not those voted to leave the EU. They are not the cleverest of sorts so I will explain the simple logic for them. If during the campaign you publish opinion pieces that a vote to leave the EU would give approval to racists and then when the vote is to leave you continue to seek to link that vote with a green light for racism then you, not the leave voters, are giving the green light to racists. The longer you perpetuate this myth the longer you continue to increase the risk to all ethnicities. In London I have personally witnessed whites abusing East Europeans, blacks abusing whites, blacks abusing Muslims, and if I had lived in areas that were predominantly Muslim or Jewish I am sure that I would have witnessed some of them transgressing as well. Racism is not something that a vote you do not like can be linked to nor is it a good rationale for a click bait article. Racism is endemic in any community that sees itself-as having sufficient numerical strength to get away with it. So journalists please stop feeding the monster that you probably avoid in your comfortable middle class street. This is the daily reality for many people the length and breadth of the UK, including those areas where non-whites voted in large numbers to leave the EU.

Politicians are just as bad, but even more cushioned from the realities of life in the UK. So they can blithely condemn racial abuse as a way of attacking the vote to leave the EU without recognising that this is the daily burden for so many people regardless of whether there is a referendum taking place. Those politicians should be held to a higher ethical standard than journalists and need to go beyond stop making such spurious arguments and apologise for past efforts to assert that those voting to leave the UK are all racists. That is the scariest thing that you can say to vulnerable minorities: that this is four nation block containing over 17 million racists. Careless politicking may cost lives.

Racism is caused by racists and they do not need the excuse of a referendum result or anything else, but will happily take advantage of such a happenstance in the knowledge that their hate filled acts are more likely to gain notoriety on media and social media. There is no excuse for racism, but sadly it was promoted by David Cameron in the middle of the referendum campaign as he abused parliamentary privilege to accuse then London mayoral candidate Sadiq Khan of consorting with racists. No racists have any excuse for their racist behaviour, including the racist currently Prime Minister of the UK. His apology is still awaited.


The immigration debate in the context of the EU was only 12 years old at the time of the referendum. Freedom of movement has existed ever since the EU became the EU in 1993, but relatively small amounts of Western Europeans took the opportunity to move to the UK. That all changed in 2004 with the admission of former communist countries to the EU, plus the British Commonwealth islands of Malta and Cyprus. Despite Tony Blair worrying for years about the scale of asylum applications his government chose to allow freedom of movement immediately to citizens of these states. The only other countries to do so were Ireland and Sweden. This funnelled most immigration into the UK with the residents of the largest new country Poland prevented from moving into their neighbour Germany until 2014.

There was an immediate response from the Conservatives, who fought the 2005 general election on controlling immigration. When Michael Howard lost that election to Tony Blair he was replaced by David Cameron. By 2007 there was already popular disquiet at the large number of EU migrants leading new prime minister Gordon Brown to declare a campaign for British jobs for British workers. Cameron derided this at the time, but his pro-immigration stance was changed by the financial collapse of 2008. The Conservative 2010 general election manifesto promised to bring immigration below 100000. This was a claim for all migration, not just the unlimited EU numbers. In the first 2 years of the coalition government the number of EU arrivals was below 100000, but the overall figure remaining above 200000. The EU numbers climbed again to 123000 in 2013 as the UK job market recovering more quickly than Eurozone countries. This was followed by increases to 174000 in 2014 and 184000 in 2015, the latter figure being announced just 4 weeks before the referendum was held.

England has a problem with immigration and that problem is the funding of public services. A remain campaign fronted by a prime minister resolutely cutting public spending on the poor was not a good advocate in chief for a remain vote. Those suffering from austerity were powerless to stop the relentless austerity, but by voting leave they could turn off the tap on one of the biggest drains on public spending. Had the remain campaign been prepared to address the immigration issue they might have been able to persuade sufficient voters that there was an alternative to voting leave. Instead they had George Osborne threatening to make austerity much worse if the UK voted leave. It was Osborne's previous austerity budgets that had made unlimited immigration problematic. His threatened emergency budget confirmed in many voters minds that the government had no plan other than further cuts to public spending and that left leaving the EU as the only solution.

The remain campaign also had a problem with immigration and their problem was not wanting to talk about it. They correctly judged that the public mood was against believing any further promises that EU migration could be controlled. Yet not talking about immigration was a catastrophic error by the remain campaign. For the wealthier segments of British society freedom of movement is wonderful because it permits those with money to study in Europe and take jobs in tourist trap magnets like Paris or Vienna. It also allows second homes in Normandy or Tuscany and retirement to Spain. For those whose economic circumstances means they do not even have freedom of movement from their home town the EU policy means lower wages, zero hours contracts, higher rent, and public services at breaking point. A remain campaign focused on the cost of foreign holidays or average household incomes dropping came across as patronising to those who cannot afford to fly to Spain because their family income fell through the floor a long time ago. It was a failure of nerve for remain to not even attempt to address those concerns and instead castigate anyone who had such thoughts as xenophobic.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved