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Finn McRedmond: Johnson pulls up drawbridge on immigration

Efforts to cast himself as a liberal Conservative now sullied beyond repair

Tale as old as time: politician claims one thing, does the opposite. Boris Johnson was clear – in speeches given while foreign secretary and prime minister – that the completion of Brexit would mark a new dawn for a "truly global Britain".

But there has long been a tension between his words and actions – and the latest chapter in the Johnson story is no different. Wednesday saw the announcement of the Tories' new points-based immigration system, and with it the demolition of the bold claims Johnson has made about the UK's new global trajectory. Also sullied beyond repair are Johnson's repeated attempts to cast himself as a liberal Conservative of the revered 'One Nation' tradition.

The new system – launched by the Home Office and its chief minister Priti Patel – purports to regain control of immigration to Britain by assigning potential migrants a points value. To reach the threshold you most likely need to speak English, command a high salary and be aiming for a career in a high-skilled industry. Nil points for the young and ambitious who want to start a life in the UK, but so far lack the experience to immediately establish themselves as a high flyer.

Aside from the moral questions raised by the policy shift, it comes with a gamut of practical challenges. Skilled migrants must prove they have a job offer that commands a salary of £25,600 – with the exception of those who possess a PhD relevant to their chosen sector.


Salary threshold

For a start, that salary threshold is wholly unsuitable for vital sectors of the economy – farming, social care and hospitality, to name but a few. These industries are propped up by European Union migrant labour, and given that the UK is nearly at full employment it is unclear who will fill these low-wage roles when the government tightens its entry requirements. It not only unsuitable to industry but to entire regions of the United Kingdom where salaries are generally lower – Northern Ireland being one of them.

These changes have nothing to do with skills at all – rather they are a simple wage threshold married with the erection of an unnecessary and hostile language barrier

The new policy promotes an uncomfortable conflation between low-skilled workers and workers who command low wages. Social care – as plenty have pointed out – might not command a huge salary, but demands emotional intelligence and empathy – not to mention time management, administrative and multitasking skills – beyond the reach of many.

We are left with an unavoidable conclusion from this entirely self-defeating immigration system: these changes have nothing to do with skills at all – rather they are a simple wage threshold married with the erection of an unnecessary and hostile language barrier.

That some voters might feel uncomfortable when they hear foreign languages on the train is one thing. That these people’s feelings – emerging from the uglier side of nationalism – have been prioritised over the health of UK industry, the livelihoods of would-be immigrants and the opposing feelings of their compatriots who feel perfectly at ease in a plural, multicultural society, is remarkable – and indicative of where the government sees its support as lying.

And while swashbuckling Brexiteers love to wax lyrical about the advent of a global Britain – rooted in Britannia Unchained, forging relationships with “old friends and new allies” – it seems that the type of Brexit currently being brandished by the UK government is nothing of the sort.

It is perhaps, too, a neglected point that these measures not only severely limit the ability of EU nationals to live and work in the UK, but that UK nationals wanting to work in the EU should now expect no favourable treatment from EU member states in return. If global Britain now means cutting off all avenues for cultural and social exchange between nations then Johnson has hit the nail on the head.


At the heart of all of this is a contradiction in the man himself. Last September he claimed to his cabinet that he was “the most liberal Conservative prime minister in decades”. But we shouldn’t forget that this so-called “most liberal Conservative” is also the prime minister who likened women in burqas to “bank robbers” and “letterboxes”; and the same prime minister who – during his tenure as mayor of London – purchased water cannon to spray protesters off the streets; and the prime minister who has just locked the gates to the nation, offering the key to only the multilingual and well educated. People, in other words, like him.

Because Johnson – though he may have been a liberal once upon a time, and certainly hasn’t been a lifelong Eurosceptic – had to make a trade-off when angling to become prime minister. That trade-off was leaning into Brexit – deal or no deal – and riding the crest of nationalist feeling Brexit provoked straight into No 10.

On January 31st, 2020, as Britain left the EU at 11pm and revellers partied in Parliament Square, the era of a “truly global Britain” was supposed to begin. To prove the government can be trusted to achieve this dream, Patel and Johnson have pulled up the drawbridges and battened down the hatches.