Why symbolise control? Irregular migration to the UK and symbolic policy-making in the 1960s

Mike Slaven, Christina Boswell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


It has frequently been observed that irregular migration is a common object of symbolic policy-making: the use of cosmetic adjustments to signal action, rather than substantive measures that achieve stated goals. Yet there is little research analysing the considerations driving policy actors to adopt such approaches. Drawing on existing literature, we distinguish three theoretical accounts of symbolic policy-making: manipulation, compensation, and adaptation. We explore these accounts through examining the emergence of symbolic policies in UK immigration control in the 1960s. Through detailed archival research, we reconstruct the deliberations leading to a series of Home Office decisions to crack down on irregular entry – decisions which officials felt were not operationally sensible, but which were based on popular political narratives of the problem. We conclude that the UK’s adoption of symbolic policy was a clear case of adaptation: a series of concessions to simplistic notions of control that did not chime with official views of what would work, and which were reluctantly embraced for reasons of political expediency. In conclusion, we suggest the need for more fine-grained analysis of the deliberations underpinning decision-making in bureaucracies, in order to produce more nuanced accounts of political rationalities in the area of immigration policy.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1477-1495
JournalJournal of Ethnic and Migration Studies
Issue number9
Early online date9 Apr 2018
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2019


  • irregular migration
  • UK immigration policy
  • symbolic policy -making


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