Slate: “Why Immigration Pushed Britons to Brexit”

by Joseph McKeown


Last week voters in England and Wales choose to leave the European Union in a nationwide referendum commonly referred to as the “Brexit” vote, with many voters claiming immigration fears as a top decider for them. The aftershocks of this referendum have been far reaching. In response, Prime Minister David Cameron, who opposed Brexit, offered his resignation, the Labour party is in turmoil, Britain’s credit rating has been downgraded, the British pound fell to a thirty-one year low against the dollar, the euro fell, and global stock prices have plummeted.

Many are offering their views on what exactly caused so many voters to want out of the European Union when many economists and financial leaders warned that it would not be a prudent move. Slate examines former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s role in opening up Britain’s borders to immigrants beginning in the late 1990s. Britain soon received roughly twice as many immigrants in the United Kingdom as had arrived in the previous half-century. Britain additionally become a highly sought-after destination for less-skilled European immigrants, due to the structure of the UK’s economy and its public policies, as well as the free movement of peoples, one of the core principles of the European Union. This, combined with loss of economic opportunity in many areas of the United Kingdom and the availability of public benefits for many recent immigrants, fueled an anti-immigrant backlash.

Many Leave campaigners, including Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, claimed that the EU was preventing the UK from enacting immigration controls. In the run-up to the vote, however, London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, who was for the Remain campaign, objected to the scapegoating of immigrants and said of his Leave opponents that it wasn’t so much “project fear, it’s been project hate as far as immigration is concerned.”

Tony Blair weighed in post-Brexit vote, acknowledging the role that high immigration numbers played, but framed it slightly differently:

The strains within Britain that led to this referendum result are universal, at least in the West. Insurgent movements of left and right, posing as standard-bearers of a popular revolt against the political establishment, can spread and grow at scale and speed. Today’s polarized and fragmented news coverage only encourages such insurgencies — an effect magnified many times by the social media revolution.

While the Leave campaigners promised to swiftly reduce the number of immigrants coming to Britain from other parts of Europe, with claims that  a vote to leave would “bring down the numbers” by 2020, afterwards, however, the Leave campaigners adjusted their remarks: “Frankly, if people watching think that they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the E.U., they are going to be disappointed,” Daniel Hannan, a prominent Leave advocate and member of the European Parliament, admits now.  

The Brexit vote has already given rise to an increase in xenophobia and reports of abuse against immigrants. Meanwhile, many eligible UK nationals, unsure of what lies ahead for the United Kingdom, are busy applying for duel citizenship.