In my previous post, I argued that free movement is the best way to organise migration. During the referendum campaign we heard Boris Johnson parrot the phrase “Australian-style points system” with nauseating regularity. Putting to one side the inconvenient fact that even Australia doesn’t have an Australian-style points system, since a large majority of migrants to Australia are brought in through company sponsorship schemes, I nevertheless assumed that the UK would, after Brexit, attempt to implement some kind of points-based system.
I argued that a points-based system was misguided, in part because it’s bound to reduce social mobility within the UK. Nevertheless, as the Guardian reports, a survey by ICM on behalf of a think-tank, albeit one I’d never previously heard of, called British Future, found that “[o]nly 12% [of the sample] want to cut the number of highly skilled workers migrating to Britain; nearly half (46%) would like to see an increase, with 42% saying that it should stay the same.” Baffling. Why exactly are we leaving the EU?
But, part way through my previous post, it became clear that a pure points-based system might not be what all the Brexiteers have in mind. I quoted David Goodhart writing in Prospect magazine in favour of “guest citizenship”. According to Goodhart, free movement has led to many EU citizens coming to the UK who “do not want or need to become British”, causing an “integration problem”. He claims that “unnecessary resentment” has been created by “the lack of a distinction between full and guest citizenship”. Utter poppycock. The problem is the reverse. Voters are afraid, so they tell us, of their communities being changed by immigration. If they thought migrant workers were here only temporarily one might reasonably suppose they’d be less, not more, concerned. In a Wonderland Alice-like leap of logic, Goodhart somehow argues that because many migrants don’t stay forever they should be prevented from doing so, ignoring the common-sense argument that people don’t usually make a decision to stay forever in advance. Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. Roots are put down over a long period of time. Moss gathers only slowly on stones. And so on.
To put my cards on the table, I find Goodhart’s views fairly, well, abhorrent is the word that comes to mind. He notes in passing, for example, that “the right of people to bring in dependents should be reviewed.” It seems to me that if you’re working somewhere, you should be able to make your life there. Not every migrant worker will choose to do so, of course, and some jobs necessarily involve spending time away from one’s family, but settling where you work is the norm, and I don’t see what right the UK has to prevent it. Doing so is exploitation, pure and simple, taking advantage of the weaker economic circumstances in some other parts of the world.
So I was a bit disappointed to read Alistair Campbell’s musings in The New European (“My memo to Mrs May…”, issue 2, July 15-21 2016) drifting towards Goodhart’s position:
“…in addition to discussing terms of exit, you would like [sic] to explore the possible terms on which we might stay, including another look at immigration… Might freedom of movement become freedom of labour, for example?”
No, Alistair, we should simply be asking for what the EU failed to accept first time round when Cameron asked, which is renewed transition controls with those countries from which there is a large net flow to the UK. Clearly, 7 years has not proved to be anything like enough for the economies of Eastern Europe to converge with those in the West. This would save the principle of free movement by amending the rules, rather than sacrificing the principle to rigid, ill-thought-out rules that were drafted on the basis of no experience whatsoever.
The bizarre situation we find ourselves in is that we’ve voted to leave the EU in part because of the number of migrants into rural areas – Boston, Lincolnshire, had the highest Brexit vote – but, judging by the frequent dire warnings from food producers, supposedly we are going to have to create (presumably time-limited) work-permit schemes to maintain the migrant work-force in those very same areas! Yeap, we need temporary migrants to replace people who, according to David Goodhart, were treating “our national home… as a transit camp and a temporary inconvenience.”
We’ve got a big problem here. On many levels, not just that of how society values different jobs, an aspect Peter Fleming emphasises.
According to the food producers, we have to produce as much food in the UK as possible. Even though farming less intensively and leaving more land fallow would surely reduce soil depletion and enhance our ability to feed ourselves in the long-term. Do we really think our national security is at risk if we have to buy cucumbers from Poland or Romania, rather than employ Poles and Romanians to pick cucumbers grown in East Anglia? Of course it isn’t.
And apparently migrants on low wages are essential to our food production. Yet those communities ultimately sustained by farming – Boston, Lincolnshire and its ilk – don’t want East European shops and voices on their high street. I guess Goodhart envisages migrant permits forcing workers to stay on the farm 24/7 – how else to prevent them shopping or speaking in Boston High Street? – and, I presume, traveling in blacked out vehicles to and from Stansted for their Wizzair flights.
But what bothers me most is the general attitude that it is acceptable for non-UK citizens to live in conditions that the locals aren’t expected to put up with. The fact that only migrant workers will do certain jobs should not be a reason for ensuring a continual flow of migrant workers under schemes denying them rights to make a life in the UK. Rather, it should be a warning that working conditions in those jobs are exploitative. Pay – that is, the minimum wage – needs to be increased. Only when British workers apply for such jobs should we employ migrant workers with a clear conscience.
And I seem to recollect that seasonal fruit-picking jobs were advertised in local newspapers back in the day (I’m talking ’70s and ’80s). I read such ads as a kid and wondered if I could get some pocket-money that way. Students, I recall, habitually supplemented their grants by helping bring in the harvest – grape-picking in France being the coolest gig.
The government should simply face down the farming lobby. Tell them they’ll simply have to pay more after Brexit. Put the minimum wage up faster than currently planned to give them a clue as to what they should be paying. Don’t give them an exploitative migrant-worker scheme. And don’t give one either to any of the many other industries that are also no doubt lobbying ferociously behind the scenes. If some jobs move overseas and we have to import cucumbers, so be it. It makes no economic sense for the UK to do everything – the theory of comparative advantage and all that.
The tragic thing is that if we hadn’t accepted over the last decade that it was OK to employ migrants on lower pay than Brits would accept for the same work and conditions we might not be Brexiting in the first place.