In a recent post I talked about the “neoliberal fantasists who voted Leave”. Here is Ryan Bourne from the influential Institute of Economic Affairs. He notes that “the mood music from the post-referendum Conservative party — with former Remain backers in No 10 and the Home Office overcompensating with a caricatured view of what voters want — is not a good sign for the short-term”. But he still believes that Brexit can be transformed into some kind of neoliberal wet dream, with a bonfire of regulations and a unilateral abolition of UK tariffs on trade.
The economics of this was always fantasy, as John Van Reenen and colleagues painstakingly demonstrate here, but it also seems politically naive. After all the Leave campaign was a success largely because it promised to control immigration as a result of leaving the EU, controls which are distinctly anti-neoliberal. Controlling immigration is not a caricature of what the majority of Leave voters wanted, but instead what most were voting for. It does seem naive to believe that a government after Brexit would try and quietly forget about this, particularly when led by someone who had spent the previous six years trying and failing to control immigration. It also seems naive to imagine that this turn against neoliberalism would not go beyond immigration.
And yet, the ‘southern strategy’ was highly successful for the Republican party in the US. This combined an economic policy that favoured finance and corporates, increased inequality and free markets with an identity politics that appealed to race, religion and cultural identity. (I could perhaps add geographical identity here as well: see this article by David Wong.) Perhaps the UK party of the right could follow a similar course, using immigration as a substitute (and for some a proxy) for race, whilst pursuing an otherwise neoliberal agenda?
Is this what the Conservative party tried to do under Cameron and Osborne? Actually I think that is the wrong question, for reasons I will come to shortly. In terms of what the Coalition government actually did, Jonathan Portes summarises it thus:
The promise to cut net migration to the “tens of thousands” was generally regarded by immigration policy experts as unachievable, or achievable only at an economic cost no sensible government was willing to pay. In practice, the latter course was never tested: resistance from within government from the Department of Business, supported to a greater or lesser extent by the Treasury, meant that even non-EU migration was only reduced very substantially for non-HE students; for most other routes it has stabilised. Non-EU net migration is currently about 150,000 a year, slightly higher than EU net migration
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This does not mean the policy changes had no impact: the increase in the regulatory burden on business and the education sector has been substantial, and has certainly resulted in some reduction in skilled and student migration. The most damaging single decision was probably the closing of the Post-Study Work Route. However, overall, any economic damage was considerably mitigated.
Of course that resistance from the Department of Business came from a Liberal Democrat, Vince Cable, and not a Conservative. Which leaves open the possibility that the economic damage from attempts to hit the immigration target might have been greater if just the Conservatives had been in power. So it is not clear that the Conservative focus on immigration was just so they could win elections with zero cost to their more neoliberal objectives. It still remains the case that, just as Trump exposed the flaw in the Republicans’ southern strategy, so Brexit was the critical flaw in Cameron’s emphasis on the problem of immigration and his failure to meet his own targets.
I said it was the wrong question, because I think in this case it was not a political party that was calling the shots but a section of the print media: the right wing tabloids. As Andy Beckett writes in this comprehensive history of this part of the UK media:
[Brexit] was an outcome for which the tabloids had campaigned doggedly for decades, but never more intensely – or with less factual scrupulousness – than this spring and summer, when the front pages of the Sun, Mail and Express bellowed for Brexit, talking up Britain’s prospects afterwards, in deafening unison, day after day. Two days before the referendum, the Sun gave over its first 10 pages to pro-Brexit coverage.
And the principal means the tabloids used to obtain this result was the “endless xenophobic nudges of its immigration coverage.” Of course, these newspapers will say they were just expressing their readers’ fears, but when they are reduced to making up stories to encourage this fear any claim to innocence becomes very hollow. Fueling anti-immigration feeling was their version of a southern strategy, and Brexit saw its culmination.
Having achieved this objective, will the tabloids start ignoring the immigration issue, enabling the greater immigration and zero tariffs that Mr. Bourne desires? Or will the influence of these tabloids, perhaps now greater than it has ever been, start to fade away? To the extent that these seem silly questions reveals the political naivety of the neoliberal Leavers. It is highly unlikely that Theresa May will become squeamish about damaging business through immigration controls to enable her to meet her immigration target. The best hope of those who do not want to go down this path is that, as Jonathan Portes expects, the Brexit vote itself starts to reduce the immigration numbers.
Brexit will also put other pressures on May which are likely to move her away from neoliberal policies, as the assurances given to Nissan indicate. As Bourne writes in a recent blog: “if this is a commitment to permanent or semi-permanent support to almost ‘make up for’ changed trade arrangements then it is hugely misguided.” Misguided it may be, but that is the direction the politics will push a Prime Minister determined to be seen as making a success of Brexit. Just as Republicans have agonised over how to deal with Donald Trump, so it will become clear to UK neoliberals the damage to their cause that Brexit will generate.
This article originally appeared on the author’s blog.