How Leave weaponise migration and win the referendum

Until earlier today I thought Remain were pretty likely to win the referendum. As anti-migrant as much of the UK is I didn’t think that would be enough to sway the result, but that’s because I’ve been thinking about it all wrong. The referendum isn’t asking the question “are you happy about migration now?” It’s asking “will you always be happy with migration like this?”

They sound like similar questions but if Leave spin it right they’re not. The referendum is not just a decision about cutting migration now, it’s about a multi-decade political settlement about migration. The Tories campaigned successfully on reducing migration to the 10,000s. Even being charitable, there is no way to achieve that without leaving the EU and introducing tougher visa standards for everyone; the Tory Policy To Deport Your Friends on steroids.

If we vote to stay in the EU then we, as a society, are permanently rejecting reducing net migration below 100,000. I don’t think there is a majority who support leaving the EU just to reduce immigration now. But if told “a vote for Remain is a vote for over 200,000 migrants a year forever”then I think the rationale changes. Will people positively endorse a political settlement of mass migration?

If Leave are clever — and although all signs are pointing to the fact they’re not, they might be — then this is how they’ll frame the debate. The question will be: Do you want to live in a world where you actually can’t talk about immigration? Do you want to have lost the debate forever, for mass migration to be officially endorsed? Will people be happy if they can moan about immigration but do nothing because the die will be cast and they will have lost.

When the dust has settled, and if Remain wins, then something truly special will have occurred. Britain will, for the first time, have a political settlement that positively says “yes” to mass migration. The UK hasn’t had this before. Post-war mass migration has always proceeding haphazardly, without a master plan or a political consensus. The change a “remain” vote would bring would be massive and that what makes it less likely than many people are presuming.

Remain have had a good couple of weeks showing people that their future will be uncertain after a leave vote. 280 economists saying Leave would wreck the economy are convincing, if not terribly popular. However, migration is also unpredictable, for example, we could barely predict how many Romanians and Bulgarians would arrive over the last two years. Uncertainty is scary and a Remain vote means migration remains unpredictable. Even without the specter of Turkey joining the EU, immigration — and the future of immigration—will dominate the debate.

It would be fantastic were Britain to accept its role as a multi-cultural society but getting there will be difficult and if Leave are smart they will make it as difficult as possible.