Immigration was the dominant issue in last year’s referendum campaign, and it remains the decisive issue for the public as the Government prepares to begin Brexit negotiations.
This week’s Brexit Diaries – recording the views of 100 citizens across Britain, 52 who voted to Leave and 48 who voted to Remain – reveal the central position that immigration continues to occupy for both leave and remain voters alike.
The least controversial element of the immigration debate is the question of whether EU nationals already resident in the UK should be able to stay. Here our diarists are nearly unanimous. "Those who have already made their careers and homes in the UK should be allowed to stay", said one remainer.
"They have worked very hard and made their lives here. It would be an insult if they weren’t allowed to stay", commented a leave voter.
A remain diarist summed up the view that EU citizens have made a contribution to the UK: "If they get sent back, they should be reimbursed all the tax they paid into the UK economy. If the UK doesn’t want them then they shouldn’t want their hard-earned money".
This issue of the contribution EU citizens make to the UK is a critical point of distinction for the majority of our diarists.
While they believe that EU migrants who are working should stay, there continues to be a perception that many are only here to claim benefits – and should be sent back.
"If current EU citizens living in the UK have something positive to offer then they should be allowed to stay, but if they are simply on benefits then they should be made to leave". "Yes if they are working and paying into the system; it’s those who are living off the state that need to be sent home". "They should be able to stay, but only if they work and contribute".
This distinction comes into even sharper focus when our diarists consider the issue of EU immigration post-Brexit.
There are two clear points of view – one group believes that those willing to contribute should continue to be allowed to come here; a second group – of both leavers and remainers – takes a far tougher line: "Too many people are ruining our country. Litter on the streets is increasing, and less people are speaking in English on a daily basis"; "This country is in crisis. The NHS cannot cope, our benefits system cannot cope"; "We should look after our own before anyone else"; "They just don’t integrate into our ways and traditions".
Whichever group our diarists fall into, there is a clear view that immigration was one of the main drivers of the Brexit vote, and there is a clear instruction to the government as a result: "There are too many people in the UK – the numbers need to go down"; "It will be very frustrating if immigration does not fall after Brexit"; "Ending immigration was one of the main reasons why Brexit happened – immigration needs to be stopped if possible".
Spencer Livermore is a partner at BritainThinks