It is deeply worrying that the UK appears to be renewing, perhaps with greater vigour, its commitment to reduce net migration through crass methodologies.

The first time Theresa May declared ‘Brexit means Brexit’ one could be forgiven for assuming it to be mere political puffery – a resolute soundbite, albeit devoid of detail, thrown to a ravenous news cycle that provided the government a brief moment of cover while it searched for a strategy. Following the annual Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, however, the statement has gained some definition and mass – perhaps even calcified – into what increasingly appears to be plans for a hard Brexit.

Speaking to an audience of the party faithful, May wasted little time in delivering the perfunctory gratitude for her predecessor, David Cameron, before diving into the first concrete details of her administration’s Brexit plan: the UK will invoke article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by March 2017, which will initiate a two-year process of formal negotiations and set the UK on a path to exit the EU by 2019. Since that speech, the High Court has ruled that the government does not have the power to trigger article 50 without parliamentary approval. The government will appeal this decision at the Supreme Court next month.

May also announced that she would present a Great Repeal Bill to parliament, which would be included in the Queen’s speech next year. Assuming it passes into law, the bill would take effect upon Britain leaving the EU and repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, a law that grants legal supremacy to EU legislation in the UK. Simultaneously, the body, or ‘acquis’ of EU law would be converted into British law. This, according to May, would serve dual purposes: first, it would enable parliament to amend or repeal any of the converted laws subject to domestic review and debate; second, it would give businesses and workers a sense of security that the same rules would apply to them on both sides of Brexit – at least until they are addressed by parliament.

May also asserted that any idea of a binary choice between a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit was a false dichotomy. However, in stating no fewer than three times that the UK would control its own immigration, and in light of her rejection of any arrangement modelled after the Swiss or Norwegian agreements, she seems determined to aim the bow at a hard Brexit. Indeed, to infer otherwise would be, to paraphrase London’s former mayor, to assume aspirations of pro-cake having and pro-cake eating. It is a lovely thought, but one that ignores the laws of political physics that govern reality. To be blunt, as EU leaders have made clear following May’s speech, the UK will not receive access to the single market should it choose entirely to reject freedom of movement.

Renewed pledge

As troubling as the PM’s speech was, home secretary Amber Rudd’s address at the conference caused an even greater stir.

To the surprise of many, Rudd renewed the widely criticised pledge to reduce net migration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands, a goal first proposed (and not met) by her immediate predecessor. In her speech, Rudd proposed a number of measures intended to help meet this goal and laid out a timetable for implementation of several provisions from the Immigration Act 2016.

Proposed measures included:

  • Creating a stricter Resident Labour Market Test to ensure that foreign workers are not being employed in roles that British workers could perform, while also incentivising businesses to train the domestic workforce.
  • Creating a two-tier student visa system that no longer ‘treats every student and university as equal’ by supporting the best universities and imposing stricter rules on student migrants seeking to enrol in ‘lower- quality courses’.
  • Making it easier to deport foreign criminals, including EU migrants who commit minor crimes,  and banning re-entry for five to 10 years.
  • Setting up a £140m Controlling Migration Fund to ease pressures on public services in areas most affected by high migration. This would be accomplished by preventing illegal migrants from receiving housing benefits, cracking down on landlords who rent to illegal migrants, and providing English language support for legal migrants.

Additionally, the following timetable for provisions from the Immigration Act 2016 was announced:

  • From December, it will be a criminal offence for landlords knowingly to rent to illegal migrants, which could result in imprisonment;
  • From December, it will be mandatory for taxi drivers to undergo immigration status checks;
  • From next autumn, banks will be required to perform regular immigration checks on clients.

Of even greater concern, briefing notes were released after the home secretary’s speech which detailed a proposal that would require businesses to publicly disclose the proportion of foreign staff they employ. This plan rightly drew swift and sharp disapproval. And in response to the wave of criticism, Rudd explained in a BBC radio interview that the plan was ‘not something we’re definitely going to do, it’s one of the tools we’re going to use as a review to see if we can use it as a way of nudging people to do better behaviour’.

It is worth pausing for a moment on Rudd’s choice of the word ‘nudge’. Nudge theory, a well-known behavioural science concept, involves using positive reinforcement and indirect means to modify the behaviour of individuals or groups. In fact, before becoming prime minister, Cameron required his shadow cabinet to read the 2008 bestseller, Nudge. Once in office he formed the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’.

In this case, however, unlike reducing the size of sugary drinks that people can purchase, or putting fruit at eye level in the supermarket, which encourages individuals to change habits in ways that benefit themselves and society, the proposal floated by the home secretary would result in precisely the opposite. Put simply, forcing companies to list the number of foreigners they employ to shame them drives to the very heart of, and in fact promotes, the public’s worst behaviours – xenophobia, blind nationalism and destructive nativism.

If reducing net migration is the aim, this is plainly a terrible method of achieving that goal.

Hostile environment

It is deeply worrying that the UK appears to be renewing, perhaps with greater vigour, its commitment to reduce net migration through crass methodologies. It is also surprising that the government does not seem to recognise that policies such as the ‘Go-Home Vans’ and shaming businesses via publication of international employee figures do virtually nothing to further this cause. Rather, they compound tensions by reinforcing a sense of ‘us and them’.

The June referendum vote to exit the EU was seen by many, including the government, as a mandate to curb migration and, in particular, gain greater control over free movement from the European Economic Area and Switzerland. May did not appear to mince words when she stated: ‘We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully independent, sovereign country. We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration. And we will be free to pass our own laws.’

But a wholesale rejection of free movement to reduce net migration will likely do little, in and of itself, to address overarching public frustrations about globalisation that led to Brexit. And, if many business leaders and economists are correct, a hard Brexit will damage the economy, thereby causing further harm to many of the very people who voted to leave.