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Current Developments and Future Challenges | United Kingdom |

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Current Developments and Future Challenges

Randall Hansen

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The United Kingdom has become a country of immigration after the Second World War. During the first post-war years immigrants mainly came from the country’s former colonies. Later, immigrants from other world regions followed, especially from Europe. Peak periods of immigration have reliably occasioned public hostility, press hysteria, and party politicization of the issue. Currently, the topic is again high on the political agenda.

Ukip poster campaign 2014: 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. (© picture alliance / empics)

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. In the May 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP secured the highest vote and largest number of seats: 27.5 percent (23 seats) vs. Labour’s 25.4 percent and the Conservatives’ 23.94 percent (both latter parties won 18 seats) on a platform opposing immigration and urging withdrawal from the EU. Third, and closely related to the last point, the removal of transitional controls on Romanian and Bulgarian immigration from 1 January 2014 created new concerns, exploited by UKIP of uncontrolled EU migration.

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 . ” Such campaigns will have little effect (most calls to the government number listed on the poster were hoaxes), but they are designed more for the public than immigrants: they are meant to reassure anti-migrant voters that the government is doing something.

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 . In the summer of 2014, he announced that from November the time during which EU migrant workers can claim benefits will be reduced from six months to three months . The measure has enjoyed some support elsewhere in the EU.

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 actual figure was between 700,000 and one million . Whereas the long-term impact of this immigration is an open question, A8 workers have been subject to public resentment but have otherwise provoked few integration crises in the form of mass unemployment (they came for work) or violence. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that most A8 workers returned home. From 2005 to 2011, fully 695,000 A10 workers left the UK. Thus, in contrast with past migrations, in which unskilled migration was largely permanent and followed by large-scale family reunification, the majority of A10 migration has been circulatory. However, in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, restrictions on their nationals’ entry were kept in place for the maximum allowable period—until January 1, 2014. It is too early to draw conclusions about migration from these two countries, but as of February 2014 there were 127,000 Bulgarians and Romanians in the UK who were “in employment,” most of whom likely arrived as work permit holders after 2007 .

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.

This text is part of the Interner Link: country profile United Kingdom.



  1. Clark (2014); YouGov (2014).

  2. Sparrow (2013).

  3. Fontanella-Khan/Parker (2013).

  4. Parker/Warrell (2013).

  5. Hansen (2014).

  6. For a further discussion of EU expansion and the free movement of workers, see also Heinen/Pegels (2006).

  7. Galgóczi et al. (2011).

  8. Migration Observatory (2014).


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Dr. Randall Hansen is Full Professor at the Canada Research Chair in Immigration and Governance, and Director of the Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada. E-Mail Link: