Our country is divided. Not just between Leavers and Remainers, or between right and left. But in our attitudes and our attachments, in our loyalties and our sense of identity.
It’s a split between Somewheres and Anywheres, says David Goodhart (1), between people who are Open and Closed, says Global Future (2). Although they dispute each other’s estimates of how many people fall into each category, they agree that the country is divided between older people, with a lower level of education, living in small market towns and villages, especially in the Midlands and the North, and younger people, with degrees, who live in major cities and university towns, especially in the South. The former, the Closed-Somewheres, think of themselves as English more than British, oppose immigration and multiculturalism, and support authoritarian policies like smacking and capital punishment. The latter, the Open-Anywheres, think of themselves as British more than English, but also as ‘citizens of the world’, are enthusiastic about multiculturalism and immigration, and support international aid and transgender rights.
My own upbringing and career have given me a taste of both types of life, and a blend of the attitudes that they foster. I was brought up in the English countryside and hardly visited London until I had left school. My brother lives on the Devon farm that passed from my grandfather to my father to him. Being English is a crucial part of my identity and I am proud to represent three market towns and a large slice of one of England’s most rural counties in Parliament as a Conservative.
But I am also gay, went to university away from home and graduate school in the United States. I speak three languages, am married to an Israeli man twenty years my junior, and have spent most of the last 25 years living in London.
I am a hybrid, an Open-Somewhere, a country boy-turned-metrosexual-turned Tory MP. As such, I feel a strong sense of empathy for people on both sides of this cultural divide. During my eight years in Parliament, I have come to understand how people’s different experiences shape their views and determine how quickly they will accept novelty and change. Most of my constituents sit on the Closed-Somewhere end of the spectrum. They are not wildly right wing. They don’t have that frightening moral certainty that characterises much of the Evangelical Right in the United States. But they are old-fashioned and conservative with a small ‘c’. They see a country, an economy, and a society that have changed very quickly. They don’t believe these changes have benefited them or those they care about. They worry that there has been a shift in attitudes among the ruling elites which threatens to leave them beleaguered, in a society which is becoming alien. Their vote to leave the European Union was born out of frustration. They were pulling on the emergency brake to stop the train hurtling in a direction they don’t want to go.
But they aren’t as extreme or reactionary as media caricatures imply. They accept that modern life is complex. They admit that the NHS could not continue to function without doctors and nurses from abroad. They are quick to acknowledge their pride in the achievements of Mo Farah and confess without embarrassment to a regular craving for Chicken Tikka Masala. But they will still say that they do not feel at ease in a bustling multi-ethnic and multi-cultural city like Nottingham or London.
The introduction of same sex marriage shone a spotlight on these divisions. As a friend of David Cameron, I played a part in persuading him of the rightness of this cause and was determined to support the legislation when it came before Parliament. But I knew that many of my constituents were not comfortable with it. Because they are reserved and instinctively polite, they would usually try to avoid the subject with me. But they were discussing it among themselves, and felt quietly aggrieved that I was not able to represent their views in Parliament. Now that gay marriage is law, and thousands of people like me have got married, I think most of them would accept that their worst fears have not been realised. But that does not mean that they feel happy about the way it came about. It was, for many of them, a totemic example of the country’s metropolitan elite imposing a profound social change on people, and parts of the country, that were not ready for it.
The greatest source of the resentment felt by people with a Closed-Somewhere outlook has been immigration. For the last 15 years, the UK has accepted a sustained inflow of people that is unprecedented in our modern history. After two decades in which more people left the UK than moved here, immigration began to increase in the 1990s. After 2004 when the Blair government extended the right of free movement to the first wave of Eastern European countries joining the EU, immigration soared to over 500,000 a year.
This dramatic and sustained rise in immigration happened without any democratic mandate. There was no explicit reference to significant increases in immigration in Labour’s 2001 manifesto. Nor was any legislation put before Parliament seeking parliamentary consent for it. The impact on public opinion was dramatic. In March 1997 only 3% of respondents considered immigration to be the most important issue facing the country. By December 2007, 46% did. It slipped into second place behind the economy after the financial crisis in 2008 but by 2015 was back in first place as the most important issue for more than 50% of respondents (3). According to the British Social Attitudes Survey in 2013, over 56% of respondents said they thought immigration should be ‘reduced a lot’ and 77% said they thought it should be ‘reduced a lot or a little’ (4). In October 2016 Ipsos Mori found that 60% of those they surveyed wanted to see immigration reduced (5).
David Cameron inherited this unhappy situation when he became Prime Minister in 2010. Unfortunately, he made things worse with his pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. As an aspiration it was reasonable, and in tune with the public mood, but as a policy objective it had a major defect. Because of EU rules on freedom of movement, it was largely outside government control. In the space of ten years, the government of one party (Labour) engineered massive increases in immigration without seeking public consent, and was replaced by a government of two other parties (Conservative and Liberal Democrat) which promised a reduction in immigration, and then failed to deliver it. Since most voters had persistently told pollsters that they wanted to see immigration cut, it is hardly surprising that many of them seized the opportunity to ‘take back control’ over our borders when it was presented to them.
The British people want to see immigration controlled but they are not opposed to immigration altogether. In December 2017, the think tank Open Europe published some research on public attitudes towards immigration (6). Happily, they found that most people don’t care about the race or religion of the people who want to come here; they are much more worried about whether they have a criminal record. 56% of the public agreed with “allowing immigrants to come to the UK as long as there are controls to make sure they will contribute to our society, economy and way of life”, versus 36% who preferred simply “reducing the numbers of people coming into the UK”. They also found strong support for immigration to meet skills shortages, especially in ‘socially useful’ roles. A large majority of people are happy to see the NHS recruiting doctors and nurses from overseas; there was also support for immigrants to fill roles as academics, care workers and engineers. But here too people express a strong desire for control: 71% want to restrict access to people with a specific job offer. Large majorities also want to restrict migrants’ access to benefits and back the idea of recent immigrants earning the right to public services and benefits after some time working and paying tax.
After our transition out of the European Union is complete, Britain will need a new immigration policy. We should put the exercise of control by Parliament at its heart. The Home Secretary should set out a complete package of policies and plans in a major statement to the House of Commons. The annual Immigration Control Statement should be billed as a major parliamentary event of equal status to the Budget. Like the Budget, it should be followed by several days of Parliamentary debate. Unlike the Budget, the statement should be preceded by the publication of draft proposals and several months of consultation with employers, trade unions, local councils, charities and members of the public.
In the first Immigration Control Statement describing our immigration policies as a fully independent country outside the European Union, we should drop the existing target to reduce annual net migration to below 100,000. Net migration is made up of the total number of people who migrate to the UK minus the total number of people who emigrate from it. But nobody cares how many people choose to retire to Marbella each year and Government should not set targets for things it has no desire to control.
The government should announce that following five principles of immigration control will underpin our new approach:
(1) Economic migrants will only be allowed to move to the UK if they are filling a skills shortage or making a significant contribution to Britain’s economic prosperity.
(2) Economic migrants will only be allowed to move to the UK if they have a concrete offer of employment.
(3) Economic migrants who have moved to the UK will only be entitled to claim benefits, access public housing or receive non-emergency healthcare from the NHS after they have worked and paid tax for several years.
(4) Family dependants will only be allowed to move to the UK if their resident family can demonstrate that they have sufficient resources to support them.
(5) Economic migrants and family dependants will only be allowed to move to the UK if they have demonstrated a reasonable mastery of the English language.
Detailed policies for the different sectors of the economy and estimates for the different categories of immigrant should then follow.
The abandonment of the overall net migration target will remove any reason for people to object to the inclusion of students in the overall measure of immigration. There is already no cap on the number of international students that legitimate colleges can recruit. What is more contentious is the number of international students who are allowed to work in the UK for a few years after they have graduated. Privileged arrangements for students from particular countries are likely to become valuable bargaining chips in the free trade agreements that we will be seeking to negotiate with the European Union and other major partners like India, Australia and Canada. We should be ready to use them to secure better market access for British businesses. The Immigration Control Statement should set out how many students are expected to stay for a limited period after they graduate and how much that is likely to contribute to the number of economic migrants.
After we have left the EU, Immigration Control Statements should take place every year. Major changes in policy should be set out in the first Immigration Control Statement of a new Parliament, so that both employers and the agencies responsible for delivering immigration control can plan for the future. In other years, an annual Immigration Audit, reporting on all of the different categories of immigration in the past year, should form the centrepiece of the Immigration Control Statement.
If we are to demonstrate to the public that Parliament is in control of immigration, we will also need to adopt systems that make the implementation of those controls possible: not just the control of who is allowed into the UK, but the control of the benefits and services to which they are then given access. Recent revelations about the way that the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policy led to the appalling treatment of some members of the Windrush Generation who have an absolute right to remain in the UK but did not have the paperwork to prove it, shows that current methods of controlling access to employment, housing and healthcare are crude and sometimes inhumane. Yet imposing effective restrictions on migrants’ access to publicly funded benefits and services is going to become even more important in the future, if we are to restore public confidence in our immigration system. I have therefore concluded that we need to think again about introducing a form of digital identity scheme.
I am instinctively uncomfortable with the idea of mandatory identity cards. I opposed the policy when it was proposed by the Blair government. I still believe we should be very wary of giving the government control of a single database containing information about every citizen’s interactions with the state including health records, tax records and records of our movements in and out of the country. But technology has developed dramatically in the last 10 years as has people’s reliance on digital identities to manage their finances, store personal information and communicate with other people. People are much more comfortable sharing their personal data with organisations and technology now makes it possible for people to define precisely who should have access to what data and under what circumstances. A digital identity scheme no longer seems so alien to our way of life.
Migrants applying to come to the UK for more than 6 months are already issued with a biometric residence permit by the Home Office. The permit includes the holder’s name, date and place of birth, their fingerprints and a photo of their face, their immigration status and any conditions of their stay, and whether they can access public funds like benefits and health services. Some of them also include the migrant’s National Insurance number. In phases over the next five years, we should plan to give everyone who has settled legally in the UK a digital residence permit (which they can access online on their smartphones) and the option of a physical biometric residence permit for those who are not comfortable with digital transactions. All citizens born in the UK should be given a digital identity when they are first given (or renew) a National Insurance number, a driving licence or a passport. Although it should not become compulsory for British citizens to use their digital identity or carry a biometric card, it is likely that in time the overwhelming majority will choose to do so, because it will make so many day-to-day transactions requiring a proof of identity so much easier.
After nearly 20 years in which the public’s concerns about immigration were largely ignored, the only way for our politicians to regain the public’s trust on immigration is to be seen to take control and adopt methods that make the exercise of control effective and fair. If we succeed in doing so, I am confident that we will be able to secure the consent of the British people for the level of immigration that our economy and our society need.
While control of immigration is essential if we are to allay the fears of those who feel threatened by globalisation, it will not be enough to heal the splits that divide us. This will require serious efforts to reassure people that their sense of identity is acknowledged and respected.
This need is especially acute in England. In Wales and Scotland, most people are happy to think of themselves as Welsh and British, or Scottish and British, with varying degrees of intensity and commitment. While Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists may express a more intense and uncompromising form of nationalism, they cannot claim monopolies on Welsh or Scottish national feeling. Ruth Davidson has built an astonishing political career out of her commitment to the Union and opposition to separatism. But I pity the man who suggests that this makes her any the less Scottish.
In Northern Ireland, national identities are inevitably fraught. But most people accept the fundamental bargain struck in the Belfast Agreement: that everyone in Northern Ireland should be free to identify themselves “as Irish, or British, or both” and to have their choice respected, while respecting the choice of others.
In England, matters are more furtive and confused. In the seventy years that have passed since the end of the Second World War, Englishness has been distorted. We have allowed an allegiance that people of all races, classes, faiths and views were once proud to claim as their own, to be caricatured by some as a racial identity for white Anglo-Saxons. As a result, young people from ethnic minorities, born and raised in England, tell me that they rarely if ever describe themselves as English and prefer to think of themselves as British, because it seems more flexible and inclusive. In 2014, Emily Thornberry MP, now Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, tweeted for many of the Open-Anywhere persuasion, when she posted a photograph of a house in Rochester festooned with several flags of St George, with a white transit van outside. Rather than see the embrace of the national flag as a healthy expression of patriotic feeling, she clearly interpreted it as a sinister indicator of unsavoury far-right views.
Those with a Closed-Somewhere outlook have noticed that the country’s elites are embarrassed by Englishness and it irks them. Who can blame them for wondering if the ruling classes are trying to change the country they love, when their embrace of its flag has become so half-hearted and apologetic?
There are a few simple and symbolic steps that we should take to reassure people that England and Englishness are cherished. We should make St George’s Day, 23rd April, a public holiday in England (but only England) in the same way as St Andrew’s Day, 30th November, is already a public holiday in Scotland (but only Scotland.) On St George’s Day all public buildings in England – government offices, courts, police stations, fire stations and town halls – should be asked to fly the flag of St George. Schools in England should be encouraged to celebrate St George’s Day and explore England’s contribution to our national story. The Welsh Assembly should be given the power to declare a public holiday on St David’s Day and to fly the flag of St David on public buildings if it sees fit.
While the creation of an English Parliament would destabilise our constitution, and create more problems than it would solve, the lack of an English counterpart to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies exacerbates the sense that Britain’s ruling classes are neglectful of England. We need to make extra efforts to demonstrate that this is not the case. Two or three times a year, the government should hold an English Leaders Meeting in an English city. Members of the Cabinet and ministers should meet with English MPs, mayors and council leaders to debate reports from institutions like NHS England and Natural England, Historic England and Homes England and discuss the future of policies affecting England.
In the United States, car number plates carry a motto or key attribute of the state in which they were registered. Drivers from New Hampshire proclaim that they “Live Free or Die.” Drivers from Montana declare that they hail from “Big Sky Country.” We should redesign British number plates to make room for a flag from the country in which the car is registered, and offer people registering a new number plate the option of the Union Jack or the flag of St David, St Andrew, St Patrick or St George.
In 2016, Toby Perkins, Labour MP for Chesterfield, called for an English anthem to be sung at sporting events involving an English team in place of God Save the Queen. He made a convincing case. Many England fans feel short-changed when they listen to Welsh fans sing Land of my Fathers and Scottish fans sing Flower of Scotland and are only given an opportunity to sing the British National Anthem in response. Conversely, some Welsh and Scottish fans find it jarring to hear their own National Anthem sung as if it were the exclusive property of the English team. Of course, God Save the Queen should remain the official National Anthem of everyone in the UK and be sung or played at any official event where it is sung or played now. But we should give the people of England an anthem of their own to sing when they are cheering on England at a sporting event. To decide what it should be – whether “Jerusalem”, “I vow to thee my country”, or “Land of Hope and Glory” – the government should initiate a public debate and then let Members of Parliament representing English constituencies decide.
In their attempts to identify the cultural attitudes and voting behaviour of different groups in British society, the authors of the “Somewhere-Nowhere” and “Open-Closed” analysis have done us all a service and helped us understand what motivated the vote to leave the European Union. But it would be a mistake to think that most people in Britain firmly belong exclusively to one camp or other, and a disaster to suggest that we should want one side to win at the expense of the other. If we are to come back together as a nation after the divisiveness of Brexit, we need everyone’s voice to be heard and everyone’s opinion to be respected. A Square Deal on Immigration and Identity would help us reflect the legitimate concerns of those with a Closed-Somewhere outlook, while preserving the openness and diversity that have defined Britain’s success as an international magnet for trade, investment and talent since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
(1) Goodhart, D. 2017. The Road to Somewhere: the New Tribes Shaping British Politics
(2) Global Future. 2018 Open Owns the Future. Available at: http://ourglobalfuture.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/OPEN_OWNS_THE_FUTURE.pdf
(3) Migration Observatory. 2016. UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Level of Concern. Available at: http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/uk-public-opinion-toward-immigration-overall-attitudes-and-level-of-concern/
(4) British Social Attitudes. http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-31/immigration/introduction.aspx
(5) Ipsos MORI. 2017. Shifting Ground: Attitudes towards immigration and Brexit. Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/shifting-ground-attitudes-towards-immigration-and-brexit
(6) Open Europe. 2017. Beyond the Westminster Bubble: what people really think about immigration. Available at: https://openeurope.org.uk/intelligence/immigration-and-justice/beyond-the-westminster-bubble-what-people-really-think-about-immigration/