Lexiteers were mocked for asking for open-handed immigration post-Brexit, yet here come the Hong Kongers

What with Covid-19 and the lock down that has been imposed on us all, matters such as Brexit have slipped down the agenda. However, it will begin to creep back into the headlines over the next 6 months because the government have now formally rejected the EU’s offer to extend the transition period beyond 31st December 2020.

None of the predictions of falling off cliffs and economic turmoil have yet come to pass. We were told this would all happen immediately after the referendum, but it didn’t. We were then told this would happen in the runup to the date that we left. We reached 31st January 2020 and it hadn’t happened yet. We are now duly being told it will all happen once we are out of the transition period. Given powers of prediction up to this point, I am not holding my breath. This is entirely in keeping with all the other historic predictions of the EU that have also, by and large, proven time and again that Britain’s decision not to join the single currency was the right one.

Throughout this time, some good things have been happening (though you would be forgiven for missing them!). I highlighted some of them here. Since then, some of that news got better and Nissan not only continued making their existing models here, they have decided to make the UK the centre of their entire European operations. Other companies have also doubled down on their commitment to the UK despite Brexit. There are further such examples listed here.

For many of us, however, there are certain things that go well beyond economic concerns. Clearly nobody wants to trash the economy – and a good number of us were not convinced that we would do should we leave the EU – but some things are bigger than GDP. In line with the Great British Socialist tradition, my reasons for wanting out were largely these. But it is the question of immigration, in particular, that I wanted to land on here.

I gave three reasons why I think Brexit would be good for immigration. Firstly, I believe the existing EU provisions on free movement are grounded in fundamentally racist ideas, permitting the inclusion of majority white nations to the detriment of predominantly non-white nations. It is racial profiling on an international scale. Second, I believe current free movement rules are (in part) responsible for our approach to asylum seekers. Where we have been unable to control intake in one area, government will very often seek to do it in another. Third, I believed that leaving EU rules on free movement would allow us to be more open-handed in our immigration policy. You can read a more fleshed out logic behind that here.

When I made that argument, it was quickly rubbished by those who wanted to imply everybody voting to leave is, to all intents and purposes, a hard-right Faragist. Nor was I the only person making this case. Harriet Ellis hit the headlines when she eyerolled on national television at Nigel Farage. Here she is doing that and explaining what went on:

She was being liked by JK Rowling and retweeted by David Lammy for correctly hating the old bogeyman. That is until it became apparent that Ellis actually voted to leave the EU. But, like me, is a left-winger who wanted an open-handed Brexit that was welcoming to those from around the world. She told the i newspaper: ‘she voted to leave the EU as she is pro-immigration and does not want a system that discriminates against people from around the world by prioritising Europeans over others’. She, like me, got panned for saying so. Here is one such example. The Politics.co.uk site insists: ‘it is time that we blasted the myth once and for all. There is no pro-immigration case for Brexit in either theory or practice. There never was. There never could be.’

Given that we have now left the EU and have been quite clear we will not be accepting free movement of people, it must be something of a surprise to find that the British government have just reached out to 3 million residents of Hong Kong to offer them citizenship. Of course, it is unlikely that anywhere close to that number of people will take the UK up on its offer. But estimates expect up to around 1 million to do so and to benefit the British economy by somewhere in the region of £47bn. Naturally, an odd thing to do if we are adamant that Brexit is all about closing our borders and being racist.

It is almost as if the government – made up and run by (on the whole) those who supported Brexit – recognise the value of immigration and have no interest in closing borders. Instead, they spoke frequently about ‘control of borders’. Such control – as I argued back in 2017 – does not necessarily mean closing our borders, but being smarter in our policy. Many of us wanted us to be open-handed to the world based on need rather than closing our borders or having no control so that certain sectors may be flooded with unnecessary labour, driving down wages, whilst others remain woefully under-staffed. Free movement from the EU meant unhelpful approaches towards other nations who could provide helpful workers where we have shortages, as well as limits on asylum seekers, in an attempt to maintain a semblance of control.

Given that most (rightly) want to recognise that the government approach to Hong Kong is entirely right and moral, those who want to insist Tories are only and always evil simply because they are Tories are now having to find other grounds to criticise. But given everything above, you will not be surprised that I find letters like the following from the Guardian a bit perplexing:

Now that Dominic Raab is opening our doors to 3 million Hongkongers, can he and the Johnson government explain the logic and morality used for this? I was told that post-Brexit the UK is to “take back its borders” and to limit immigration. The long-term Home Office policy of harm, cruelty and repeatedly broken promises continues to be practised against Commonwealth friends, particularly the rightful presence of Windrush-generation Jamaicans. How is lack of positive action for them and enthusiastic encouragement for Hongkongers balanced?

Martin Goldman


First, the case was not to ‘limit immigration’ but to control it. These are not the same thing and, as I was arguing back in 2017, control may well allow us to be more helpfully open-handed. What is more, it seems obtuse for those who insisted they wanted to be liberal and open-handed toward other EU nations to suddenly cry foul when the government have shown themselves to be welcoming to other nations, just as many of said we wanted them to be post-Brexit.

Second, the comparison with the Windrush scandal is misplaced here. Firstly, the current government were not in post during that scandal. Theresa May is the one who instigated the horrific ‘hostile environment’ that led to many being threatened with sending home. As she pointed out when she was (rightly) in the firing line, it was more recent Labour governments who decided it would be a good idea to destroy all the boarding cards and records. They insisted it was a UK Border Agency administrative decision. Successive governments were to blame for the Windrush scandal. But that this particular government are clearly showing themselves to be more open-handed than, for example, a Theresa May premiership is surely good evidence that the hostile environment is no longer quite as hostile and that, “despite Brexit”, we are not actually closing our borders. It would seem to bear out the contention of many that we wanted to see our borders opened up fairly to the world rather than wedding ourselves to uncontrolled free movement among predominantly white European nations and dealing with the rest of the world in light of this policy.

There are, naturally, things we might want to criticise this government, or Tories more generally, for. But if we think things are wrong just because the Tories said it, then we are not seriously engaging with the issues. If you don’t tend to like Tories, dislike them for what they actually say and do, not for what you assume about them or for the more idiotic reason that they are Tories and that is somehow inherently terrible of itself. For lexiteers like me, who wanted to leave the EU so that we might be more open-handed in our immigration policy, current moves by the government to welcome 3 million Hong Kongers is entirely in line with what we wanted to happen and what we predicted would happen given that governments of all stripes recognise the value of immigration.

Up to now, none of the scare stories regarding Brexit have come to pass. The economic disaster and flight of all businesses simply hasn’t happened. The democratic issues that were at stake are clearly and obviously resolved. But the approach to immigration that was so roundly rubbished – the claim that we must all be racist for wanting to leave the EU and reject free movement of people – is shown to be a nonsense in such open-handedness to other non-EU nations.