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“Vote Leave, take control” … of immigration?

Leavers knew they couldn’t control borders in a single market. But that didn’t stop them basing much of the Brexit campaign on fears about immigration.

In a campaign leaflet issued in early April, Vote Leave wrote:

More than half of net migration to the UK comes from the EU. More than a quarter of a million people came to the UK from the EU in the 12 months to September 2015 – the equivalent of a city the size of Plymouth or Newcastle in just one year.

imgresIn their series of campaign graphics under the slogan ‘Vote Leave, take control’, they also repeated this idea of EU immigration growing at the rate of a city like Newcastle every year, adding that this is “putting the NHS under big strain”.

In the same series, Vote Leave used a quote from the then Home Secretary (and Remain campaigner) Theresa May saying: “Free movement makes it harder to control immigration.”

And the same principle underlay the campaign’s use of a quote from Tony Blair with the comment: “He gave away our veto on immigration.”

Breaking point

The rival Brexit campaign Leave.EU made similar points using cruder imagery. One poster used the slogan ‘True migration from the EU more than 50,000 higher than official figures suggest’ on a picture of Middle Eastern-looking men apparently surging forward towards some barrier.

EU immigrationThis was similar in tone to the most controversial pro-Brexit billboard showing a queue of migrants at the Croatia-Slovenia border which claimed the UK was at “breaking point”.

Amid the outcry over that image – with critics pointing out its similarity to a Nazi propaganda film of the 1930s – mainstream Brexit campaigners including Michael Gove distanced themselves from the poster.

But the message from both campaigns was the same: immigration was too high, and leaving the EU was a precondition for reducing it.

EU immigrationAs Vote Leave co-chair Gisela Stuart put it, voting to remain meant there would be “no control” over migration from the EU, “no matter how great the pressure on schools, hospitals and housing becomes or how much wages in our poorest communities are pushed down”.

Single market

In fact, EU migration to the UK is high because freedom of movement is a key commitment that states must sign up to in order to be part of the European single market. This is the tariff-free trade area which provides much of the economic benefit of EU membership.

Even those states which are outside the EU must accept freedom of movement to be part of the single market – as Norway does. Given that many Leave campaigners stressed during the campaign their wish for the UK to have access to the single market, it wasn’t clear how this circle could be squared.

This may have been what Brexit campaigner Liam Fox was driving at when he said immediately after the referendum: “A lot of things were said in advance of this referendum that we might want to think about again.”


The leading pro-leave MEP Daniel Hannan spelled the point out when he told Newsnight that EU immigration would continue if the UK wanted to retain membership of the single market – as he himself wanted.

“Frankly, if people watching think they have voted and there is now going to be zero immigration from the EU, they are going to be disappointed,” he said. “All we are asking for is some control over roughly who comes in and roughly in what numbers.”

And whereas Boris Johnson had claimed during the campaign that a vote to stay in the union would mean people “kissing goodbye permanently to control of immigration”, immediately afterwards he was keen to deny that a victory for leaving the EU could be linked to immigration.

“It is said that those who voted Leave were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so,” he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column.

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