You’d have to come from a different planet not to have noticed big gains made by far right – and a few far left – parties across Europe in the European Parliament elections, notably UKIP in our polls. The UK turnout was in the region of 35%, but those who did turn out were determined to present a backlash against the mainstream parties, with a strong focus on two issues: anti-EU sentiment and opposition to immigration, notably but far from exclusively the freedom within the EU to travel and work.
This blog is my response. I have strong opinions on both subjects, though I’ll say up front that none of my views correspond with UKIP or their fellow far right groupings, especially to their tendency to whip up hysteria in the media about fictional claims, like the stories about thousands of Romanian and Bulgarian nationals coming to this country to “scrounge benefits” and “take our jobs”. The fact is that at some points during the economic cycle this kind of frenzy always emerges and a sizeable minority of votes in European and council elections have gone to the likes of the BNP (which arose from the ashes of the National Front and other racist bands), then to ostensibly more respectable groups – UKIP in this case, though quite a number of UKIP members, candidates and spokespeople have been quoted making openly racist remarks in the public domain.
As an aside, let me add this: there is unquestionably a racist undertone to many of the words you hear spoken on this topic, whatever the protestations of innocence, but I will deliberately look beyond that and address the issues. After all, this blog is not about UKIP but about the hoary arguments they and others pose.
Let’s start with the last time this debate arose, largely about Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians and others who came over here and were accused of exactly the same “crimes”. It quickly became apparent that the vast majority of Eastern Europeans who travelled here were polite, well-educated, spoke good English, had excellent skills for which they could not gain adequate employment in their own countries, were prepared to take low-paid jobs Brits frequently turned their noses up at – like agricultural harvesting, cleaning and waitressing, demonstrated excellent commitment and worked hard and often returned back home when they had earned money to take back for their families – a fact barely recorded by those who would put the barriers up and risk a shortage of people to do the dirty jobs nobody else wants.
Put bluntly, without the free movement of labour, we would simply not find people to do these jobs: crops would go unpicked in the fields, restaurants would go self-service, cleaning and caring would attract higher wages because people would not do the work. Worse still, some unscrupulous employers pay immigrant and seasonal labour below the minimum wage, and because the workers are immigrants they generally get away with it too.
Go back to the 1970s and the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin who found sanctuary in the UK, they not only integrated well, often started their own businesses to become wealth creators (some with restaurants and corner shops, but then a wide range of other contributors to UK wealth), and in general proved hard-working family-oriented upstanding members of British society, who have employed many and in some cases become members of the establishment. In neither case was the “scrounger” tag justified, any more than it has in many other cases – ignoring the screaming headlines in the Daily Mail.
But then there are many myths and lies spoken by those who would use immigrants as the scapegoat rather than what they are – an essential component of British society, without which we would be in a considerably worse crisis than we are now. The picture below gives lie to the sort of myths I’m talking about.
The ignored facts are that many immigrants from different parts of the world come with skills but are often highly restricted in using them or gaining employment for no fault of their own. This is indeed ironic, since we have vast skill shortages in many areas. You hear about engineering and specialised computing skills, for example, but working in the healthcare sphere I see first hand that we lack the resource in doctors – from junior house officers right the way up to specialist consultants and surgeons, nursing staff at all levels, radiologists (national shortage) and radiographers, and specialist technicians and support staff in a wide range of areas. In many ways it is wrong for us to recruit skills from around the world that should be applied in their own country, but money talks. In turn we lose many skilled staff to the USA and other countries as part of our ongoing brain drain.
In fact, not only do people come here but there are expat Brits all over the world, 5.5m of them, many of whom are welcomed by their hosts. We do currently have net immigration, though in a number of years we’ve had net emigration – though you never seem to hear a fuss about that. The arguments then centre on where those people go and what they do, since increasing government restrictions hamper the ability of many immigrants to support their families. Indeed, a fair proportion are expelled for less than acceptable reasons, and a friend spends her life appealing badly-managed deportation notices applied by the Home Office, who may in future ban appeals and thus become judge, jury and executioner.
While I tend towards the libertarian view on this topic and believe immigrants have been of huge benefit to this country in many ways, I’m not suggesting uncontrolled immigration for one moment. However, in the case of EU immigration (around a third of the total immigration) it is the rules of the club and equally open to Brits to find work elsewhere in Europe, were we not handicapped by our reluctance to learn other languages – and many of our expats don’t bother – they stick to their own enclave, precisely the “ghettoisation” for which some immigrant groups are lambasted within the UK. Look around most countries and you’ll find Little Italy, Chinatown, “curry mile” in Manchester and so on. Communities arise and over time change – ’twas ever thus, particularly when second and third generations become more integrated into the multi-ethnic culture that I believe is a huge strength of our country. Within diversity sparks of innovation grow. Compare our eating patterns now to 50 years ago to get a picture. We love our favourite sports and music stars from diverse backgrounds too. We are all multicultural these days, so extreme nationalism and xenophobia sits uncomfortably with our national psyche.
The more moderate voices you will hear on immigration may say “we have a wonderful multicultural society but Britain is full, we can’t take any more.” The debate on housing apart, I don’t suppose for a moment that there is not space to put people, nor insufficient food on the shelves to feed them, so the real question is “do these people (net immigrants) add value or are they draining our resources?” I’d suggest most would willingly add value, given half a chance, and that the selection process is designed to weed put those with no entitlement or refugee status, and those with no skills, visible means of support, with links to criminal or terrorist gangs, who are sorting arranged marriages or who have no family in this country. What it should do but rarely seems to achieve in a race to the bottom is give positive encouragement to those who want to be net contributors and can’t back up their claims with plans to provide. For me the bottom line is that immigration, managed sensibly, is to be welcomed and not feared. We should take more trouble to understand and get to know people, help them integrate and show the skills that complement our body of knowledge and enhance our work ethic, we will be all the richer.
We should if anything be more encouraging to the people whose skills we need, not adding more layers of bureaucracy since plenty of other countries would happily offer a better life. Rather than the fear and loathing of people who are different, it would befit us better to welcome such diversity and encourage the growth of skills at all levels for the good of ALL economies, which is after all the benefit of the free movement of labour and enterprise.
Oh, and remember this: If someone from overseas is taking the job you wanted, that’s because they are better than you, not because we favour immigrants. Learn and improve, don’t blame and whinge about it. But I think that myth has in any case long since been disproven, for reasons quoted of the Eastern European and other immigrants: rarely are they even competing for the same jobs, but if their attitude is better you can hardly blame employers for employing the people who want the work most and are prepared to put in the effort to succeeding.
Meanwhile there is another question to address: the European Union. The parties are umming and ahhing about whether and under what circumstances to hold an in/out referendum and what powers they would want repatriating.
My view is quite clear: the problems with the EU are because it’s neither fish nor fowl. I’d much sooner see a properly constituted United States of Europe – a federal union with centralised powers for defence and foreign policy, for example. There is a plan for achieving this and a group dedicated to its achievement, though not flavour of the month right now. Doubtless I would make many enemies for saying so, and politicians would certainly never vote for any proposals to reduce their own power base in the current climate.
So why do I not want us out of the EU? The myth we would be better off that way is an Empirical nonsense spoken by little Englanders who still think Brittania Rules the Waves. They believe that miraculously we could drop our biggest source of trade (which would be infinitely more difficult to achieve standing on the outside), and suddenly not only compensate by winning greater trade with elsewhere but actually grow faster – it’s not backed by any facts or evidence and could not be achieved.
But there’s much more: Take foreign policy and defence. The idea we have a foreign or defence policy independent of the USA and NATO is absurd, and for a great deal of time we have kowtowed to the demands of Washington. Politically it makes more sense to have cohesive policies made for the whole bloc than to co-ordinate lots of separate interests, much as having separate foreign policies for California and Texas would be a total nonsense. It is more efficient, easier to negotiate effectively, not have to worry about infighting, cut down on duplication of effort, and prevent the risks of conflicts breaking out by virtue of speaking with 28 voiced rather than one.
Ah yes, say the critics, but the languages and the cultures are radically different in Europe, you could not organise a cohesive force or win a consensus view. To me that is an excuse for not acting on unison rather than an attempt to forge policy beneficial to all. The best way to achieve this and divisions of responsibility I would leave to those with a handle on the detail, but it’s a long-term view and clearly not while the appetite is for retrenchment. The beneficiaries of petty nationalism are not the British people, bearing in mind our influence over what our government actually does is minimal, but I’m reminded of Dr Johnson‘s words that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and ultimately there is greater safety in numbers. Rather than ploughing a lonely furrow and being suspicious of our neighbours we should seek to co-operate more closely for the good of all. Working with America has stripped us of more rights and led us to military adventures that have been a massive drain on our resources for no obvious benefit to anybody. See my blog about Afghanistan, a prime case in point – would we have gone into that war unless goaded by the US? Obviously not.
Essentially Europe can offer far more solutions than the Mail and Express would have you believe, but it does require a change to the lobby groups. Chief among these is the farming community and the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) that has seen farmers subsidised not to produce and for products to be stockpiled in “beef mountains” and “wine lakes” to maintain prices for suppliers. Farmers have done very nicely out of that system but it’s always been inefficient and doesn’t help those most in need. The best way to change it is to be at the heart of Europe – and if we were out of the EU the need for subsidy would not stop. It would fall to the UK government to pay or lose the farming vote.
These are merely individual components in a much bigger and more complex whole. Taking another example the critics will quote as a case of European failure: the Euro currency. The argument about different speeds of economy and the failure of governments like Greece and Ireland to stick to preset limits of debt tell you one thing, which is not that it is inherently wrong to have a single European currency but that there should have been a single monetary union and central bank to run it rather than separate governments. It is a case in point to demonstrate that full economic union works infinitely better than having separate governments trying to manage their own affairs. It works pretty well in the USA, where all states have the US dollar and the Federal Reserve works in spite of the size and economic variances within the nation. Without the structures to back it up, the Euro could not succeed so Europe has to be stronger and more united, not less.
And as for citizens of Europe, why should we not all take advantage of the greater boundaries? Thinking small is a disadvantage. I don’t trust the current system of politics to be accountable or representative, nor do I think governments have a good history of making effective decisions on our behalf – and frankly I would sooner think of myself as a citizen of Europe than an unrepresentative democracy like the UK.
PS. Revise your thoughts on the number of Brits who work in Europe yet further – see here.
PPS. A friend says this: “Which reminds me… Dropped the car off in Bournemouth this afternoon with my favourite bunch of Romanians. Spotless… full interior valet and exterior clean and wax – £12. Delighted to see that they have expanded their business to included MOTs, exhaust and windscreen repairs and air-con recharging.” Before the Eastern European communities moved here, that service was not available.