Immigration isn't to blame for Brexit

David Elstein's recent article on the EU referendum misinterpreted the link between immigration, deprivation, and the 'Leave' verdict.

Jeremy Fox
25 August 2016
A UK Immigration officer checks cars crossing over from France. Gareth Fuller / PA Wire/Press Association Images

A UK Immigration officer checks cars crossing over from France. Photo: Gareth Fuller / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved“My sole concern was the fate of the large minority of UK families whose living standards have become permanently depressed, at least in part — it would seem — as a result of a surge in net migration from the EU to the UK.”

This was David Elstein’s rationale for voting ‘Leave’ in the referendum. Worth noting, because it lies at the heart of his argument, is the conflation of immigration and deprivation - effected by means of a parenthetical aside:  ‘it would seem’. Apparently, evidence-free speculation is all that Elstein needs to justify what is effectively an attempt to blame the decline of large areas of the country on immigrants. In defence of his vote, Elstein offers a few statistics of unstated provenance and takes particular aim at a post-referendum lament by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books  which - despite Elstein’s barbs - is well worth reading. More on this later.

If a correlation exists between immigration numbers and voting ‘Leave’ it seems likely to be negative.

Let us begin with simple, readily accessible data. Here is Elstein attempting to show that the regions of the country that voted ‘Remain’ are well off, while those that are deprived voted ‘Leave’:

 “Lambeth scored the UK’s highest proportion of Remain votes on June 23rd; Hartlepool the lowest. Average household incomes in Lambeth are £45,000 per annum; in Hartlepool, £16,000, barely more than a third of that comfortable figure.”

While Lambeth certainly scored the highest proportion of Remain votes,  top spot for Leave (or lowest for Remain) was not Hartlepool but Boston. Referendum voting proportions are readily available on the BBC website, so that it is hard to see why Elstein should have opted for Hartlepool,  but as we shall see this is merely the first of several misstatements in his piece. What he omitted in his references to Lambeth and Hartlepool is perhaps more revealing in the context of his"sole concern", which is that in 2015 Lambeth saw a net influx of immigrants of 4,598 while immigrants to Hartlepool over the same period totalled a mere 113.  Similarly, Wandsworth in London which voted 75% ‘Remain’ hosted 6,295 immigrants, while Castle Point in Essex, which voted 72%  ‘Leave’, saw a net inflow of 81. Unsurprisingly, immigrants looking for work gravitate to where work is available. Of course, a single year’s immigration figure may not represent the overall immigration picture in an area. For that we need to know the proportion of the population that is foreign-born. Hartlepool  turns out to have a higher level of residents born in the UK than the national average and conversely a lower level of residents born elsewhere:

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 13.44.24.png

(Source: ONS - 2001 Census, ilivehere)

If a correlation exists between immigration numbers and voting ‘Leave’ it seems likely to be negative.

Elstein infers that Lambeth residents are ‘aghast’ at the Brexit vote because the proliferation of immigrants in their borough affords them access to cheap labour - an instrumentalist interpretation of voter motivation seemingly based on little more than a chat with friends. A second unstated inference has to be that if Lambeth and other large recipients of immigrants had been deprived of them, Hartlepool and its like would have undergone a parallel recovery from economic decline, or maybe suffered no decline at all. Readers who buy that might also be interested in a legendary bridge for sale in Brooklyn. As Alan Harris more credibly argues in The Guardian, fear of immigration, not immigration itself, helped propel ‘Leave’ to victory - allied, of course, to a sense of having been abandoned by Westminster.

We can perhaps dismiss as a slip of the pen Elstein’s claim that the number of ‘student immigrants’ from China is 90,000; the ONS figure for the twelve months to March 2016 is just over 70,000. Much more important to his thesis is the following:

“The most telling statistic in the official report on immigration was the increase in the number of non-UK workers since 2014. There were 5,000 from outside the EU, compared with 224,000 from the EU — 40,000 more than the reported increase in net EU migration.”

According to the ONS, 308,000 people immigrated for work in 2015. Of these, roughly 61% were EU citizens, 15% were British citizens, and 24% were from outside the EU. In round numbers, these figures translate into 188,000 EU citizens, 46,000 Brits, and 74,000 nationals of non-EU countries. For the previous year - 2014, Oxford University’s Migrant Observatory gives a non-EU labour immigration figure of 67,000 - all numbers sufficiently at variance with David Elstein’s that one is left wondering at his sources. He writes “Lanchester loftily comments that the facts about migration ‘are freely available to anyone who takes an interest in the subject’: a pity he turns out not to be one of them.”  This disobliging aside is not only unfair - because Lanchester’s references to numbers are perfectly acceptable in context - it is also misleading because Elstein’s own figures are not only questionable, they are put to use in support of a dubious argument -  one based - unlike that of Lanchester whose work has led him to tour the country - on a rather myopic view of the UK’s disadvantaged population and, as already noted, on a misconceived correlation between data on immigration and deprivation.

[there is] ...a misconceived correlation between data on immigration and deprivation.

Turning to post-Brexit trade as it would supposedly occur under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, Elstein celebrates the fall in the pound by asserting that UK car exports to the EU priced in a weakened currency would neutralise any tariff barrier and “our annual trade deficit would be reduced by £3 billion and a similar amount in revenue from tariffs would be available to the Treasury to spend.” No mention here of the fact that complex manufacturing is a global enterprise dependent on the importation of raw materials and intermediate goods which under a weaker currency would inevitably cost more; nor that currency values are only one of many factors involved in pricing finished goods in international markets.  Elstein’s blithe - I would say Panglossian -  guarantee of an extra £3 billion to the Treasury has no more credibility than Boris Johnson’s infamous £350 million a week for the NHS.  Moreover, as those who have worked in the field (as I have) know, non-tariff barriers proliferate where nations trade purely under WTO rules (e.g. covert and overt “buy national" policies, investment and export subsidies and tax holidays for national industries, costly import charges for paperwork, customs delays etc.). This is partly because the WTO rules are an unfinished project of endless length - the current round of which has been in negotiation for the last 15 years with no conclusion in sight. The sclerotic pace of change in the WTO is one reason why governments have been keen on developing bi-lateral trading arrangements - something that Liam Fox also needs to understand. One can only hope that Elstein’s simplistic view of how international trade functions is not shared by those who will be responsible for the UK’s future trading relationships.

Whether we are better off ‘in’ or ‘out’ is far from clear economically and since Brexit has not yet happened or even been triggered, the absence of fall-out is hardly surprising. But the EU is not merely an economic project and never was - despite some wishful thinking or special pleading by politicians prior to the UK’s accession to the Common Market in 1973. It has a deep political dimension, and also arguably a moral one that admittedly has been largely ignored until now. Politically, the EU has emerged as a response to centuries of conflict between the founding nations - an effort to cement lasting peace. Morally, the EU is a recognition of our common humanity and the shared destiny imposed by our geography. The treatment of Greece by the EU and Germany has been scandalous and a breach of the EU’s formal ideals. But it is not more scandalous than the extreme market fundamentalism, the laissez-faire madness we call neoliberalism which has fostered appalling levels of inequality in this country and in others, and for which the UK has not been a follower in Europe or fellow-traveller but a leading exponent and pioneer. Successive UK governments are responsible for our deprived regions - not the EU.

Successive UK governments are responsible for our deprived regions - not the EU.

Elstein is right to point out the UK’s failure to provide enough school places for our growing population, to keep up with demands on the NHS and to invest in regional economic development and infrastructure. But the failure is not because we can’t afford such policies. We are endlessly reminded that this country is the 5th largest economy in the world; but also that we have no money and must live with austerity - a nonsense equation sustained by repetition because it lacks intelligent rationale.

One of the salient characteristics of neoliberalism is the aim as far as possible to withdraw government responsibility for the provision of public services. Hence the drive for so-called free schools, the stealth privatisation of the NHS, the fondness for toll-roads and bridges, the Private Finance Initiative, corporate management of prisons etc. It’s as if the ambition of governing parties is to approach a condition of decision-making idleness - to collect money from taxpayers and redistribute it to private service suppliers while ignoring deprivation and inequality by casting the blame on useful scapegoats like uncontrolled immigration  and the EU.

Lanchester writes of the “toxic legacy” of the ‘Leave’ campaign which he describes as “a xenophobic, racist sickness of heart that is closer to the surface today than it has been for decades.” And he suspects, as do I, that the poorer regions of our national community are the ones least likely to benefit from Brexit - partly because they will cease to receive EU regional development funding and be left to whistle for any compensatory commitment from Westminster. Elstein’s intention in voting Leave was undoubtedly benign as is his attempt to justify his choice. There is no suggestion here that he is not a person of goodwill, only that on this matter he is misguided. If his sole referendum concern was the people living in deprivation, he might perhaps have taken the trouble to inquire more fully into the sources of their distress instead of following the lead of Nigel Farage and his fellow Brexiteers in blaming immigrants for ills presided over and partially created by feckless politicians in thrall to discredited economic dogma.

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