‘The England I emigrated to in 2011 would have found the government’s Rwanda policy completely beyond the pale’

An independent Britain was supposed to be off the leash and on the lash – instead Irishman in Hackney Peter Flanagan is watching it veer to the right

Immigration has surged since the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Immigrants just can’t get enough of Brexit Britain. Spiralling cost of living? We love it. Collapsing national infrastructure? Oof, more please. Threats to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda? Bring it on!

Perhaps it says more about conditions beyond the UK’s borders that people keep coming. Britain isn’t even the most prosperous country in this part of the world anymore. But in a world of war, climate chaos and political instability, dreary old England still appeals.

It’s better to live in a country that people want to move to than the opposite.


I landed here in 2011 as part of a wave of Irish emigration that I’m sure my parents never thought they’d see again in their lifetimes. The term “Broken Britain” had been freshly minted, though the London I remember still throbbed with possibility. Ireland had its legs cut clean off by the banking crisis, but the much larger British economy seemed to absorb the blow, staggering forward like a drunken giant.

If Ireland’s pain was immediate and absolute, Britain’s was eked out over time in agonised increments. Austerity gutted the public sector until the national mood slowly soured and turned rancid. Politics has coarsened.

The best example of this I can think of is Nigel Farage’s transformation from fringe xenophobe to Mr Primetime, gobbling insects on ITV against the backdrop of Ant and Dec’s rictus grins.

Politicians normally move away from extreme positions towards the centre to make themselves more palatable to the mainstream, but Farage has remained perfectly still as the public instead inched its way towards him and his weirdo policies.

The England I emigrated to in 2011 would have found the government’s Rwanda policy completely beyond the pale. In 2022, the UK and Rwanda signed an agreement for the UK to deport people seeking asylum in Britain to Rwanda. Last year, the UK Supreme Court ruled the plan to be unlawful. In response, the UK government introduced a new bill.

It makes you wonder how much further to the right Britain could shift in another decade. Prime minister Farage announcing his plan to bring back hanging? Foreign secretary Katie Hopkins sending the army to annex Benidorm? Tommy Robinson coming third on Strictly Come Dancing with the goose step?

Polling suggests that the public have had enough. Brexit has failed on its own terms, leaving the nation with the worst of both worlds. Leaving the European single market has tied ankle weights to the economy while immigration is increasing anyway. The result is a smaller pie to be shared by more and more people.

As an exercise in reverse psychology, it has been a triumph. But anyone who believed that they were voting to “take back control” of their borders will look at the numbers and feel betrayed. Part of the problem is that they would probably struggle to point out their borders on map.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but also has an open border with Ireland and the EU. Gibraltar on the other hand is a British overseas territory attached to Spain. This is not to be confused with Jersey, which is a self-governing British crown dependency off the coast of France.

Canada and Australia both have the king as their head of state, unlike Barbados who dumped Queen Elizabeth and declared itself a republic in 2021. You could forgive Britain and its former colonies for being a little confused. Shards of empire are scattered around the globe like breadcrumbs – follow the trail and you eventually find your way to London.

EU workers are being steadily replaced by people from places such as India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Many do the care work that the health system would collapse without. Unfortunately, the government never defined what a “good” immigrant might look like and so even these workers are being targeted by hardliners in the Tory party. Tough new rules will not deter refugees fleeing war but will put-off the kind of skilled workers that the public actually broadly approve of.

Whatever migrants think of Brexit, the people who already live here in Britain are sick of hearing about it. The scope of its objectives were too broad, the specifics ill-defined. Like a stag weekend on steroids, an independent Britain was supposed to be off the leash and on the lash.

But the best man didn’t book any activities, the groom is getting sick into his pint glass, and everyone else is just sitting around a Wetherspoon’s, rheumy-eyed and nauseous, glancing at our watches and wondering when we’re allowed to go home.

Peter Flanagan lives in Hackney, London, and works as a comedian.

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