Immigration and the EU Referendum


Immigration has been in the news a lot lately, especially with the EU referendum coming up.

So let’s use the tools and data of political science to understand the topic better.

Last year, 270,000 EU citizens immigrated to the UK, and 85,000 returned to the EU.  So EU net migration was around 185,000 (1).  Total net migration, which also includes those who immigrated from outside the EU, was 330,000.

That was the highest ever level of EU migration – going all the way back to when we joined the EEC in 1975. Indeed during the 1980s the trend was the other way – British workers moved overseas, particularly to Germany, as their economy was doing better than ours at that time.  You might remember the TV show ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’.  Currently our economy is doing better than many European ones so more people are coming than going.  But there’s no reason to think that will always be the case.

The Leave campaign claim that EU migration is putting unsustainable pressure on our public services, worsening the housing crisis, putting pressure on the NHS, on schools and on our roads.  Their latest TV broadcast for instance shows a sick older lady receiving NHS treatment much faster in an imaginary hospital if we leave the EU (see image below).  Are they right?


Imagine that we left the EU and banned EU immigration completely.  Nobody else allowed – no footballers, no entertainers, no chefs, no businessmen, no nurses, no cleaners, nobody.  And we kept that door shut for ten years.  And for comparison let’s say that we stayed in the EU and immigration continues at this year’s record level (the highest ever) for the next ten years.  How would that impact our population and our public services?

In terms of population, we’d end up with 1.85m fewer people living in our country after the 10 years.  That sounds like a lot of people, which it is.  But we’re a big country – 64.6m in total at the moment (2).  So even under these very extreme assumptions the difference is only 2.8%.  Less than 1 in 35.

Would you notice the difference if there were 34 instead of 35 people in your doctors’ waiting room?  If there were 34 instead of 35 cars ahead of you in the traffic jam?  Would your child’s education suffer in a class of 35 instead of 34? I doubt it.

And don’t forget that we’re making crazily unrealistic assumptions about how much we could reduce immigration if we left the EU.  Because even the most ardent Leave campaigners don’t say that we should stop immigration altogether.  They usually talk of using a points system to reach the government’s net target of 100,000 per year.  So the difference in population after 10 years wouldn’t be anything like as much as 1 in 35.

Let’s say we could hit the net target of 100,000 – half from the EU and half from non-EU countries for the sake of argument.  In that case, the difference in population after 10 years would be 1.35m or 1 in 49.

And don’t forget that we’re also making another very aggressive assumption – that migration will continue at the same level as last year, our highest ever. It might be more realistic to take the average of the last five years migration (3).  If we do that, then the difference in our population after ten years would be only 790,000 or 1 in 82.

1 in 82.

I can’t tell the difference between a crowd of 81 and 82 people (even when they were my own wedding guests!).  Can you?

So here’s the thing: however you feel about EU immigration, even under extreme assumptions the impact on our overall population just isn’t very large.

Now at this point some of you might be thinking – “This can’t be right – step outside and look with your own eyes!  Britain is full of foreigners!  The place I grew up is like another country!  How can you claim that EU immigration is not significant?”

I live in inner London so I can sense where you might be coming from.  A few things to bear in mind:

1) The overwhelming majority of immigration to the UK over the last 40 years has been from outside the EU (3).  However you feel about that, it has nothing to do with our EU membership;

2) Whether you like it or not, Britain has been a multicultural country for several generations at least.  You can’t tell whether somebody is an immigrant just by looking at them (sorry if this is an obvious point).  You might hazard a guess at their ethnicity or race but that’s a very different thing;

3) Historically, immigrants have clustered in particular areas of the country, so your neighbourhood may not be representative of the country at large;

4) British people from all backgrounds have become much more cosmopolitan in their tastes over the last 40 years.  We drink in pubs much less, but enjoy wine at home or go to restaurants and cafes a lot more.  Instead of just eating British food, we enjoy flavours from all over the world. So the retail and commercial landscape of our country has changed – to reflect our changing tastes, not just because of new arrivals.

“But wait! What when Turkey, Montenegro and Albania join the EU? We’ll be swamped!”

No we won’t.

Mainly because Turkey and Albania are nowhere near being eligible to join the EU, and Montenegro is tiny.  Also don’t forget there are 27 other countries in the EU to choose from if residents of those countries did fancy a change of scene.

And even if in the distant future many other countries did join and we did find ourselves swamped, Britain could leave.  We’re free to leave the EU whenever we want.  But if we leave and then want to rejoin, we’d need the consent of all 27 other member states.  Better to stay and keep our options open than leave in fear of something that is very unlikely to happen.

And so far we’ve also not factored in the contribution that immigrants make to our country, and specifically our public finances.  EU migrants contribute more in taxes than they use in public services, as they are much more likely to be of working age than the general population (4).  So if we used that extra tax revenue to hire more doctors, build more schools, invest in transport and so on, we’d actually have better public services than we would without any EU immigration.

It takes time to hire and train teachers and doctors, build schools and roads, and so forth.  So it’s true that a sudden influx of people into an area can put short-term pressure on services.  But the fundamental reason for the issues we identified at the start – NHS pressure, oversubscribed schools, congested roads, the housing crisis – is not EU immigration.

We are now six years into a government austerity programme to attempt to balance the books.  So it’s not surprising that our public services are feeling the pinch.

An ageing population and new advances in medicine put particular strain on the NHS.

For the last thirty years, we have failed by a wide margin to build enough houses in the UK.  Interest rates have been at an ‘emergency’ rate of 0.5% for the last seven years.  That is why house prices are so high.

And this story of decades of underinvestment is repeated for our roads and railways too.

All of these issues are home-grown.  And all of those policy areas are entirely within the control of our government in Westminster.  They have nothing to do with the EU and are not the fault of EU migrants.

Finally, there’s been plenty of academic research into this issue, including a summary paper just published by the London School of Economics (5).

The research shows, contrary to many tabloid headlines, that

1) Immigrants do not take a disproportionate share of jobs created by our economy;
2) There is no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on wages;
3) There is no evidence that EU migrants affect the labour market performance of native-born workers (i.e. make it harder for native-born workers to get promoted, get a pay rise, etc)

So it is clear from examining the evidence that fears of immigration have been blown out of all proportion by the Eurosceptic press and the Leave campaign.

But what about all that money we send the EU?  Couldn’t we use that to improve public services?

Yes, but it wouldn’t go very far, and it would be outweighed by the economic damage from leaving.

Our net contribution to the EU was £8.5bn last year (6) which works out at 36 pence per person per day.  That is a drop in the ocean compared to our annual NHS budget of £116.4bn (7).

And if you’re trying to work out the impact of leaving the EU on our public services, you can’t just look at our net contribution.  You also need to consider the effect that leaving would have on the size of our economy, and hence the tax revenue the government can generate.

Seven highly respected independent economic organisations have tried to work this out (8). And all seven of them have reached the same conclusion: that the economic damage caused by Brexit would more than offset the saving from our EU contribution.

The best estimate suggests that the government would have between £20bn and £40bn less to spend on public services than if we remained in the EU (9). So our public services wouldn’t be better if we left the EU – they would be much worse.

So if we left the EU to ‘take control of immigration’, and then reduced it as discussed above, we’d still have all the same problems we have today – the housing crisis, an overstretched NHS, oversubscribed schools, heavy traffic, etc.

But we’d also have two even more serious problems to add to the list: a recession and the unknown consequences of destabilising the very institution which has secured peace in Europe for the last 70 years.

People are sceptical of economists’ forecasts.  But you don’t even need to estimate many of the economic problems that will arise from Brexit – you can see them already in the currency markets.

The pound suffered its biggest one day fall in seven years when Boris and other MPs joined the leave campaign (10).  You can watch the impact of movements in the referendum opinion polls in the EUR/GBP exchange rate.  A major bank recently warned that Brexit could wipe 20% off the value of the pound through devaluation (11).

Devaluation sounds like a dry and abstract concept. So let me explain what that means:

20% of your life savings wiped out overnight.

The numbers in your bank account will be the same, but what you can buy with it will be 20% less, since most things we buy these days come from overseas.

Only the other day the Financial Times reported that hedge funds are planning to run their own private exit polls on referendum day to speculate on the currency markets ahead of the official result (12).
Just as during the ERM crisis of 1992, the vultures are circling, waiting to feast on our self-inflicted wounds.

And here’s another very clear threat: to our jobs. Only last Friday, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan, warned his staff in Bournemouth that one, two or even four thousand of them would be made redundant if we leave the EU (13). Imagine how his staff are feeling today. And as a manager, let me tell you: that’s not the kind of thing you tell your employees unless you’re deadly serious.

Even leading Leave campaigner Michael Gove admitted just a few days ago that jobs are at risk if we leave the EU (14). Multimillionaire UKIP donor Arron Banks described this economic damage as ‘a price worth paying’ (15).

Arron Banks, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage might be rich enough to gamble their jobs on Brexit – but are you?

It is quite possible that some of your friends and family will lose their jobs as a direct result of Britain leaving the EU.  Do you want to be responsible for that?

We took an evidence-based look at the immigration and EU issue above.  But the Leave campaign and Eurosceptic press (Express, Sun and Mail in particular) choose to paint a very different picture.  A picture which blows these statistics out of all proportion.  ‘Strangers in Our Own Country’  ‘Our borders are out of control!’.  You know the stuff I mean.  Pictures which invite us to eye our friends and neighbours with suspicion and even hostility. Editorial which pins the blame for every problem from housing to wages to traffic to NHS waiting times on immigrants.

And it’s not even because they don’t know any better.  The leaders of the Leave campaign and the political editors of those newspapers are clever, well-educated people.  They know the facts I set out above just as well as I do.

Yet instead of presenting a balanced view, they choose to deliberately whip up fear and suspicion of immigrants for their own political purposes.

Shame on them.

Why?  Because appealing to people’s basest prejudices sells newspapers and gathers votes.  Just ask Donald Trump.

And what greater contrast could there be between the divisive rhetoric of the leave campaign and the noble vision of the EU’s founding fathers.

Men who, amid the ashes of World War Two, set their national differences aside and dared – not just to dream but to build – a better Europe for us all.

A Europe in which war was “not only unthinkable … but materially impossible” (16).

Here’s Winston Churchill addressing the Congress of Europe in 1948:

“A high and a solemn responsibility rests upon us here … If we allow ourselves to be rent and disordered by pettiness and small disputes, if we fail in clarity of view or courage in action, a priceless occasion may be cast away for ever. But if we all pull together and pool the luck and the comradeship – and we shall need all the comradeship and not a little luck … then all the little children who are now growing up in this tormented world may find themselves not the victors nor the vanquished in the fleeting triumphs of one country over another in the bloody turmoil of … war, but the heirs of all the treasures of the past and the masters of all the science, the abundance and the glories of the future.”

And – against all the odds – we did it.

We pooled the luck and the comradeship and achieved Churchill’s vision.

Those “little children” are now retired – the first generation in a thousand years to grow up without the horror of war in Europe.

Instead of building weapons, our scientists work together to solve the greatest problems of our age.

We enjoy a standard of living unimaginable to people in 1948.

All the cities, art, history, people, food and culture of this wonderful continent are open to us whenever we want to visit, to live or to work.

Hundreds of millions of European people who until only a few decades ago were ruled by dictators or communists now enjoy democracy, human rights, the rule of law and the abundance of the free market.

I think that’s worth 36 pence a day.

And yet here we stand, about to turn our backs on this great project, thanks to cynical newspaper owners and barefaced lies from the Leave campaign.

Forget what the Sun says.

Forget what’s good for Boris’ and Farage’s careers.

Listen to every current and former British Prime Minister (17). Every other major UK political party leader (18).  To Barack Obama, to Hillary Clinton, to Angela Merkel and a host of other world leaders (19).  To Stephen Hawking and 83% of scientists (20).  To 40 religious leaders (21).  To 300 leading historians (22).  To the Trades Union Congress and our six largest trades unions (23).  To 88% of economists (24).  To the National Farmers Union (25). To the Chief Executive of NHS England (26),  to the Royal College of Midwives (27)  To British businesses of all sizes (28).

For there is an overwhelming consensus among experts of all kinds that Britain is stronger in Europe.

And what does the Leave campaign say to this?

“I think people in this country have had enough of experts”  (Michael Gove, Friday 3rd June)

What an extraordinary response.

If you were sick, you’d want to see a doctor.  If you had a plane to fly, you’d want a pilot.  So when we have the most important political, economic and foreign policy decision of our lifetime to make I think we should listen to the people who are in the best position to evaluate what to do.  And they’re all telling us the same thing – we’re much better off in Europe.

It might not be what Michael Gove wants to hear.  But it sounds like the right answer to me.

So when you’re in the polling station on Thursday 23rd – with that stubby little pencil in your hand – Vote Remain.

Not in fear, but with pride – about what we, the people of Europe, have achieved together.

Not in ignorance, but with science firmly on our side.

And not alone, but with the greatest statesmen of the past three generations urging us on.

And then in years to come, when your children ask you how you voted in the referendum of 2016, you can look them in the eye and tell them you were on the right side of history.


Thank you for reading

(13) BBC Radio 4, 3rd June 2016; see also
(17) David Cameron…/david-cameron-launches-tory-ca… ; Gordon Brown…/inspiring-view-britishness-def…; Tony Blair; John Major…/John-Major-Voting-to-leave-wil…
(18) Jeremy Corbyn (Labour)…/europe-needs-to-change-but-i-am-vo…/ Tim Farron (Lib Dem)…/Britain-impoverished-backwater… Caroline Lucas (Green)… Nicola Sturgeon (SNP)…/Nicola-Sturgeon-vows-to-back-argu…
(19) Barack Obama…/as-your-friend-let-me-tell-you… ; Hillary Clinton…/hillary-clinton-britain-should… Angela Merkel; Shinzo Abe…/japanese-prime-minister-shinz…/
(20)…/stephen-hawking-donald-trump-… ;…/scientists-say-no-to-uk-exit-from-e…

Main image from 

 First published on June 6th 2016

It’s easy to forget why the EU was founded

This post was first published on Facebook

Amid the noise and mud-slinging of this referendum campaign, it’s easy to forget why the European Union was founded: to prevent war in Europe.

And it has succeeded. Not only in turning old enemies France and Germany into close allies, but also in spreading democracy, human rights and the rule of law into countries which were dictatorships until the 1970s (including Spain, Portugal and Greece), or under Soviet control until the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.

These are astonishing achievements.

Bringing peace and prosperity to a continent which had been ravaged by war for a thousand years previously. Successfully nurturing democracy in potentially highly unstable countries in our own backyard. Extending human rights and the rule of law to hundreds of millions of European people through diplomatic means.

The EU was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for precisely these achievements.

So it makes me sad that Britain is now poised to abandon this great project.

But at least I’m in good company. For since this referendum was announced, seemingly every leader of the free world has urged us to remain. US President Barack Obama. German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. And many, many more. In fact the only major overseas voices calling for Brexit seem to be US Presidential candidate Donald Trump and French National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

Meanwhile a consensus has emerged among British politicians and experts in favour of staying in the EU. Every current and former British Prime Minister. Every major UK political party leader except Nigel Farage. 300 leading historians. 83% of scientists. 40 religious leaders. Our six largest trades unions. 88% of economists. The Chief Executive of NHS England. The Royal College of Midwives. The National Farmers Union. An overwhelming majority of British businesses of all sizes.

The leave campaign glibly dismiss their concerns as ‘Project Fear’ – as if fear of Brexit was some kind of irrational phobia like being scared of spiders.

But there are clear and present dangers from leaving the EU – not least of course destabilising the institution that has brought peace to our continent for the first time in a thousand years.

Economists warn that Brexit will trigger a recession. People rightly take economists’ predictions with a pinch of salt. But you don’t need a complicated econometric model to tell you that investors don’t like risk. And you don’t need a crystal ball to see that risk and uncertainty will abound in the event of Brexit. For nobody – on either side of the debate – can tell you what our terms of trade would be with our largest trading partners afterwards. What kind of trade deals we might make to replace those which we would lose. What exit terms the other 27 EU countries would demand if we left. Or even whether we would remain in the Single Market or not. As a small business owner who trades with both EU and non-EU countries, let me tell you: these are not minor details.

And let me address one of the most pernicious myths of this campaign. That remaining in Europe is good for the elite, whilst leaving is good for the ‘man in the street’. Rubbish. The elite will be fine either way. They’ll find something else to do, or somewhere else to go, if the worst comes to the worst. But the man in the street? He’s the one who’ll be made redundant if a recession hits. He’s the one who will find his budget stretched beyond breaking point if our currency depreciates and imports become more expensive. For the dismal truth is: when economic trouble strikes, it’s those who can least afford it that suffer the most.

One thing we can say for sure is that whatever happens in the EU referendum, the next British General Election isn’t scheduled until 2020. We probably will have a new prime minister before then though as Cameron has indicated he’ll step down during this Parliament. Sooner rather than later I expect if he loses the referendum. So if we do leave the EU, the renegotiation of our employment rights and environmental safeguards currently handled by the EU will fall to the triumphant Eurosceptic right-wing of the Tory party. Is that what you want? Possibly, if you’re one of the eccentric billionaires or offshore media moguls who is behind the leave campaign. But I fear for ordinary voters (including moderate Conservatives like me) that would be a very worrying dynamic.

Some say that it is not the EU but NATO which secures our peace. They are half right. NATO is our most powerful military alliance. But as we have learned time and again, you cannot bomb another country into becoming a peaceful democracy. And whether you care about their citizens or not, it matters to Britain whether our neighbours are democracies or despotisms. Nothing has been more effective in spreading democracy and the rule of law in our neighbourhood over the last 40 years than the European Union. Yet oddly it’s those same people who say that being an EU member involves an intolerable loss of sovereignty. Giving up powers which should reside at home. I say oddly as they almost never complain about our NATO membership, which does exactly the same thing – sharing our sovereign power with other nations to achieve a greater outcome than we could achieve on our own. To the EU, we must pay a membership fee, accept free movement of people and the supremacy of EU law. Not insignificant contributions. But less significant than having to declare war if somebody attacks a NATO ally. And Britain is of course free to leave the EU whenever she likes through a simple majority vote in Parliament and the exercise of Article 50.

And this is my final observation: this referendum is asymmetric. If we leave, and then decide we made the wrong choice, rejoining would require the consent of all 27 other member states. But if we remain, and then decide later that we wish to leave, Britain can do that on her own through a simple Act of Parliament. So if there’s any doubt at all in our minds, then clearly it is better to remain and keep our options open than to leave and be at the mercy of 27 other countries should we later realise our error.