At the time of writing, immigration remains a highly controversial topic in the UK for several reasons. First, the government’s promise to reduce net immigration to below 100,000 appears to have little chance of success; most recent figures place net immigration at 243,000 annually. The reasons for this failure are clear: the government only indirectly limits intra-EU migration (by requiring that inactive immigrants are self-supporting for particular periods of time) and it has no control over emigration. If the economy continues to improve, emigration may be expected to decrease while immigration increases. Second, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is enjoying poll support ranging from 9 percent to 16 percent. Much of its appeal is based on opposition to immigration, particularly from EU countries; and the party poses the greatest threat to the governing Conservatives.
UKIP is a powerful force in UK politics because the party has successfully united three longstanding bases of populist and far-right support: anti-EU sentiment, anti-immigration sentiment, and xenophobia (which of course partly informs the first two). The government, led very much by the Conservative party, has responded with three measures. First, it has resorted to symbolic anti-immigration politics. In July and August 2013, the government paid for buses to drive through six London boroughs with large posters reading ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest
Second, David Cameron, with some support from Germany, has called for an end to ‘benefit tourism,’ or the alleged practice of moving from poorer countries in the EU to wealthier ones in order to claim welfare benefits
Finally, the UK’s Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition has promised a referendum on remaining within the EU after the next election, following a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership. A key element in that negotiation, were the Conservatives to prevail, would be an increased capacity to limit intra-EU migration.
Immigration is currently higher on the political agenda than at any time during the United Kingdom’s history, and for the first time in British political history, immigration poses a direct threat to the electoral viability of the most successful political party in British history: the Conservatives. Two factors underlie the current crisis. First, a decade ago (2004), the Labour government took the decision to apply no transitional controls to A8 EU migration; this decision was purely voluntary, and the immigration crisis that followed was in this sense elective.
It was elective—but unexpected. The government had predicted that some 15,000 migrants would enter annually after May 2004
The second factor that contributes to the immigration-related political shifts has been the rise of UKIP. Since the run-up to the EU elections in May 2014, UKIP has successfully linked anti-immigration sentiment with one of the defining cleavages of UK politics: Europe, meaning membership of the European Union. Because EU immigration is so difficult to control given the free movement provisions of EU law, and because membership of the EU is such a divisive issue for the Conservative Party, David Cameron and the Conservative leadership have found it extremely difficult to reduce the political and electoral saliency to immigration and to see off the threat of UKIP. How these developments will play out will depend on which party/parties win the next general election (in 2015 at the latest). For the moment, continued net immigration well over 100,000 per year, and UKIP’s successful linkage of immigration with a critique of the EU’s threat to British sovereignty, will keep the topic high on the British political agenda.
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