Thursday 24 August 2017 19.03 BST
Last modified on Thursday 24 August 2017 19.04 BST
The volume of immigration is a measure of a country’s attractiveness to foreigners. It follows that a political strategy of reducing net migration involves making the UK less appealing as a place to live and work. A strict border regime can impede the daily flow, but it also contributes to a culture of insularity that discourages outsiders from wanting to get in. A more efficient way to achieve the same goal is economic failure. Net migration to the UK rose through the boom at the turn of the century and fell back in the recession that followed the financial crisis. It rose again during the recovery, partly because UK growth outperformed a stagnating eurozone.
According to the latest ONS figures, net migration has fallen to its lowest level in three years – 246,000 in March; down 81,000 from the previous year. There will be many causes to that fall, but it is not irrelevant that it coincides with a period in which British output has looked anaemic relative to continental neighbours. A more direct impact is the departure of EU nationals, driven by uncertainty about their status after Brexit.
Resentment of high levels of immigration was the leading driver for millions of leave voters, so a migrant “Brexodus” can be taken as a sign that their will is being enacted. But it is hard to celebrate evidence that Britain might be chasing away workers who brought valuable skills to the economy – and made financial and cultural contributions, too. Many Brexiters are squeamish about the idea that their project has become synonymous with an aggressive, indiscriminate drive to chase down the foreigner count within UK borders. Theresa May adopted that agenda long before she supported leaving the EU. As home secretary she aspired to reduce the annual net figure to below 100,000, chasing the target even as cabinet colleagues pointed out its impracticality. Mrs May’s zeal fostered administrative belligerence at the Home Office that sometimes looks inhumane: deport first, ask questions later.
Brexit is fast making clear how much easier it is to say immigration must fall than it is to say which immigrants are unwelcome. The NHS relies on foreign nurses. UK agriculture needs seasonal workers. British universities thrive on the provision of world-class education to overseas students. On that last point government policy has been guided by pure fallacy. The Home Office has operated on the presumption that around 100,000 students annually overstay their visas. Data from the latest border checks, released today, show the true number to be less than 5,000. Amber Rudd, the home secretary, has now asked the government’s migration advisory committee to investigate the role that international students play in the economy. It is grimly revealing that no such investigation has been conducted before. It demonstrates how Mrs May’s insistence on the inclusion of students in her target – like the target itself – flows from visceral political impulse, not dispassionate consideration of evidence. She might believe, as Nigel Farage has been candid enough to say in the past, that an economic hit is worth taking as the price of lower migration, but she has never voiced that view in public.
The prime minister has also been silent on the detail of how Britain will manage its borders post-Brexit, while declaring that greater “control” is the paramount aim. Such control was the winning pledge in the referendum campaign. But the reality of delivering it without harming the economy is more complex than Mrs May has dared to acknowledge. The instincts she followed at the Home Office are a poor guide. It is not too late for her to learn to make policy based on the evidence.