Since the Brexit vote in 2016, it has been all too easy to be cynical about our attitudes towards immigration. The vote to leave the EU, we have been told by some commentators, was a massive middle finger towards foreigners and cosmopolitanism, which effectively sealed our previously open European border. In the years that followed, the Government has taken it for granted that a failure to keep the numbers down would be seen by voters as a betrayal and have been guided by the principle of keeping as many people out as possible.
However, attitudes towards immigration have undeniably been shifting in recent years. This change has been gradual enough that the Government could be forgiven for not noticing it until now. According to polling from Ipsos Mori, between February 2015 and February 2022, the percentage of people agreeing that the number of immigrants coming to the UK should be ‘reduced a lot’ shrank from 45% to 25%, whilst the percentage of people agreeing that immigration should be increased grew from 10% to 22%. A significant change, but without a major crisis to underline how out of touch with the public mood the Government is, not enough to prompt a rethink.
We have now of course had that prompt, in the form of three million Ukrainians fleeing the country to escape the war. Ever since the first Russian tanks crossed the border, the British Government’s response to the escalating refugee crisis has stood in stark contrast to our European neighbours. Our recalcitrance to do away with bureaucracy led to farcical scenes such as pop-up visa processing centres on the continent with secret addresses in case, God forbid, anyone should try and use them without booking an appointment first.
This level of mean-spiritedness might have been politically expedient if we really were a nation of people ready to pull the drawbridge up. But we’re not. Over 120,000 people have registered to offer their home to Ukrainian refugees this week.
And yet, despite all the public support for refugees, the Government is still playing catch-up. Despite clearly meeting public demand, the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme has been hastily thrown together and huge questions remain about its effectiveness. The scheme requires that UK families to sponsor a refugee who is already ‘known to them’, with the hope being that refugee charities can help match a family to a refugee. However, the charities in question claim they had no consultation on the scheme and have no experience working on anything like the scale that is now required.
It’s clear the Government has woken up to a reality that we’re actually quite pro-immigration as a people, and is keen to show it’s not out of touch. But in the hurry to respond it needs to remember that rushed decisions to placate an angry public don’t always have the best long-term outcomes.