A shortage of lorry drivers left petrol stations dry across the country. At the heart of it, its fraught relationship with migration.
In late September, long queues at petrol stations all across England made headlines around the world: the country’s pumps were running dry. The fuel shortage, however, wasn’t an energy crisis but a supply-chain issue: there were no drivers to get the fuel where it needed to be.
Panic-buying made the situation worse and sent fuel prices skyrocketing to an eight-year high. After public pressure, the government enlisted the army to help solve the issue.
Brexit and the pandemic are the two principal factors experts have agreed to blame for the shortage: the Office for National statistics has estimated that there were 16,000 fewer EU nationals working as HGV truck drivers in the year ending March 2021 than in the previous year. Many went back home when the pandemic ground the industry to a halt, and never returned due to Brexit.
The drivers’ working conditions have also been blamed, while others have pointed to the fact that HGV driver shortages are a problem across Europe as well, and companies in the UK struggled to fill seats even before the pandemic.
But Brexit has made things worse.
The new Australian-style, points-based immigration system Britain has introduced for all workers means EU citizens lost their preferential lane, and truck drivers no longer qualify to work in the UK under the new rules. Home Secretary Priti Patel had promised the UK was “no longer going to have a route for low-skilled workers to come to the UK.” While shortages have been seen in other sectors since Brexit, such as care work, this time the new policies backfired in a spectacular manner.
At the heart of it all is the country’s fraught relationship with migration.
Windrush Generation: rebuilding Britain
Footage of hundreds of men and women from the Caribbean region getting off the HMT Empire Windrush ship in their neat lace dresses, ties and pie hats are in stark contrast with the desperate journeys of refugees in rickety boats across the Mediterranean today. The ship docked at Tilbury, England in 1948, giving the name to an entire generation of post-colonial migrants to the British Isles.
One reporter’s account of the day filmed by Pathe News characterised them as “citizens of the British Empire coming to the mother country with good intent.”
Short of workers and in need to rebuild its ailing economy after World War II, Britain would take in more than 300,000 people from the region over the next 20 years, as well as hundreds of thousands more from elsewhere in the former British Empire, particularly Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.
The British Nationality Act 1948 had given British citizenship to all residents of the Commonwealth. They worked in manufacturing and construction, as well as public transport and the National Health Service.
Everyone who wasn’t a Commonwealth citizen faced entry restrictions to Britain based on income and health status, unless they were entering under a specific labour scheme.
“The Act’s aim … was to try and retain access to the labour power of its colonies and former colonies,” Becky Taylor, professor of history at the University of East Anglia, tells TRT World.
‘Rivers of blood’
By the mid-1960s, concerns over migration from the Caribbean and South Asia had begun to grow. Polls conducted in the second half of the decade showed that more than half of Britons thought migration from former Commonwealth nations had harmed the country.
Tensions peaked when Conservative MP Enoch Powell made what became known infamously as his “rivers of blood” speech in 1968, claiming the country had gone literally mad in its embrace of mass migration. The speech was so divisive that many would later blame it for some of the violence that flared in later years.
Powell had quoted a line from Virgil’s Aeneid that said, "as I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood'."
Irish presence, which by that point counted just under a million, was much less prominent in the British public’s imagination of migration. Race relations in Britain were at their most strained, and migration policy shifted accordingly.
In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act de-facto stripped the vast majority of Commonwealth citizens of the automatic right to enter the country by introducing immigration controls for anyone whose passport hadn’t been issued in the UK or Ireland. It was the first of three laws that would serve, eventually, to strip citizens of the former colonies of their citizenship rights.
“These three Acts sought to use non-racialised mechanisms to achieve racial ends,” professor Taylor explains.
The last of these three laws was the Immigration Act of 1971, which decreed Commonwealth migrants did not have any more rights than those from other parts of the world, effectively marking the end of the Windrush era.
The Ugandan-Asian crisis: from citizen to refugee
Just the following year in 1972, 60,000 Asians living in war-torn Uganda, a former British colony, were given 90 days to leave the country.
Many were from South Asian countries including India and Pakistan, and were British passport holders who had been in the country for generations. Some were the descendents of labourers brought from the other end of the British Empire to build the Ugandan railway.
27,000 were resettled to the UK as refugees, joining between 150,000 and 200,000 other East Africans Asians who had come to the country in the previous decade.
From migrant to EU citizen
In 1992, the UK alongside 11 other European countries signed the Maastricht Treaty, which sanctioned the birth of the European Union announcing a new stage in the process of European integration and introduced free movement, granting all EU citizens the right to live and work without restrictions in any member state.
In the following decade, tens of thousands of EU citizens moved to Britain, and the other way around.
Meanwhile, the only way for non-Europeans to come to the UK was through the asylum route. After the fall of the Berlin wall, applications for asylum shot up and by the end of the 90s – with conflicts flaring in Sri Lanka and Iran/Iraq – they had reached more than 70,000 a year.
New Labour: open doors and prison cells
1997 marked the beginning of Tony Blair’s New Labour decade, widely associated with its “open door” immigration policy – although some critics would argue against the word choice.
Restrictions on immigration were generally relaxed to issue more work and study permits, attracting international students and expanding low and high-skilled migrant worker schemes.
Blair unconditionally embraced globalisation, which migration was seen as an integral part of, believing the only “rational response” to it was “manage it, prepare for it and roll with it.”
Underpinning Blair’s policies was the idea of “managed migration.” A new points-based system was introduced in 2005. When the EU expanded east in 2004, the UK was the only country to allow immediate right to work to new EU citizens, resulting in one of the largest migration flows since WWII. In the years that followed, Polish became the second most widely-spoken language in the UK.
But in 1998, the Blair administration also published a white paper called “Fairer, faster, firmer”, resulting in an expansion of Britain’s immigration detention facilities, where undocumented migrants and asylum seekers are sometimes detained for months, even years in a few cases.
‘A really hostile environment’
“In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest.”
These were the words emblazoned on billboard vans seen driving up and down the country in 2013, as part of a campaign by the Home Office, which was then led by future Conservative prime minister Theresa May.
During her tenure, May introduced a set of legislative and administrative changes with the aim to create, in her own words, “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants." As a result, landlords and medical professionals would be required to check people’s immigration status.
Critics have long argued that these measures – still in place today - have pushed undocumented migrants underground and prevented them from accessing basic services for fear of being reported.
Even more shockingly, they led to the children of former Commonwealth citizens who came to the UK as the “Windrush generation” being detained and deported. Never formally naturalised as citizens after travelling with their parents, they had become undocumented in their own country. As the Home Office had destroyed their landing cards, they had no way to prove their right to live in the UK.
Poster-boy for Brexit
Hostility towards migration had reached toxic levels by the early 2010s, a consequence of the global economic crisis and the rise of the UK Independence Party. Its leader, Nigel Farage, had succeeded in making anti-migrant and xenophobic rhetoric more palatable to wider sectors of the populace by blaming “unskilled” migrants for driving down wages.
Hardline views on migration from other EU countries reached their apogee in 2014, when the UK was required to lift transitional immigration controls for citizens of Romania and Bulgaria, which had joined the now 28-member EU bloc in 2007.
On the day restrictions to work in Britain were lifted on January 1, a contingent of journalists and politicians showed up at Luton airport and besieged the first low-cost flight from Romania arriving there shortly after midnight. The British public made the acquaintance of the first Romanian to land in the UK, a 30-year-old whose wish, he told journalists, was to “work, earn money and go home”. In the weeks that followed, he was pestered by the media to the point that he had to quit his job in a car wash. He became the poster boy of EU migration to the UK.
By then, the idea that economic migrants could have “good intentions,” as suggested by the Pathe journalist who had met the Windrush passengers upon arrival over 60 years earlier, did noy fly with a vast swathe of the public. A good quarter of it believed the only reason migrants were heading to the UK was to take advantage of its welfare system.
In June 2016, 52 percent of the British public voted to leave the European Union.
“We can think of Brexit as the coming to fruition of decades of a public and political debate that positioned migration as a ‘problem’ that needed to be solved; and a problem that could only be solved by ‘taking back control’,” Professor Taylor said.
And while the rhetoric of the high-skilled against the low-skilled worker has served to saw the seeds of division, it is perhaps one of the HGV drivers, an Englishman from Sussex interviewed by British daily The Guardian that puts its best: “I’m always staggered by how much truck drivers have been taken for granted in the UK. We work so hard for very little money.”