UK politics has been for many years split on a Left/Right – Labour/Tory axis, but over Brexit this is breaking down. Prof. Richard Murphy gives a succinct definition that difference between Left and Right is how widely ‘us’ is defined. Left wing people cast the definition of ‘us’ very widely; ideally incorporating the whole of humanity. Right wing people cast ‘us’ very narrowly; to self, family, friends and perhaps more widely to a local and national area. Does this definition shed a light on why Freedom of Movement (FoM) seems to be the new acid test that fundamentally divides people?
On the 23rd June ’16 the country voted to leave the EU. The referendum result has be interpreted by PM May as a vote against FoM. I had put this down to her frustration as Home Secretary in getting the net number of ‘migrants’ to the 10s of thousands whilst her government pursued policies which would deliver the exact opposite. The Premiership seemed the perfect opportunity to get the ‘job’ done properly.
I had assumed that the PM was unusual in this respect. For me FoM is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, benefit of being in the EU, but depressing, in the HoC, according to the recent UK in a changing Europe survey:
If new foreign nationals from other EU countries had the automatic right to live and work in the UK, then 66% of MPs think that would not be honouring the referendum result while fewer than one in three (31%) reckon it would be. There is a now majority against the idea that freedom of movement in its current form is compatible with the 2016 referendum among both Conservative (88%) and Labour MPs (52%), and among MPs that voted Leave (90%) and Remain (54%).
This is quite scary. The referendum was a simple binary question as to whether to stay in, or leave the EU. FoM was not on the ballot paper. Why has the EU referendum been recast as an imperative to end FoM? One answer is that whereas FoM in the EU shows reciprocity (the quid pro quo is that UK citizens can live in work in c 30 other European countries) it has been painted almost exclusively in the UK as an immigration issue. This is even sadder because the EU rules allow far more powers against benefit tourism and other issues, but have never been implemented by the UK.
It is interesting however to look at the attitudes between EU and extra EU immigration to see both how the UK stands in distinguishing between the two and placing it in the wider European context. The Euro Barometer survey helps to do this.
Some Euro Barometer Results
The EuroBarometer is a multi annual survey taken throughout the EU which started in 1974; the year after the UK (and Denmark and Ireland) joined the EU. It contains a wealth of data and here are presented some of the spring 2018 results (the Nov 18 results – Euro Barometer 90 have not yet been fully analysed). Looking at the ‘immigration’ side alone Fig.1 shows attitudes towards EU immigrants.
The UK results in Fig. 1 show a 64% (69% if don’t knows are excluded) positive attitudes towards EU “immigration”. Whereas this is not particularly high by EU standards it is still a super-majority. It seems strange therefore opinion in the HoC has moved so much against FoM.
The non EU immigration attitudes are shown in Fig. 2.
The external immigration results while less positive in general shows that the UK is well above average at 54% (59% if don’t’ knows are excluded) are still in a majority. The evidence from this survey is that ‘immigration’ remains popular.
Figure 3 shows the percentage of foreign born nationals in the EU member states. In general (Cyprus seems to be an exception) there is a good correlation between the number of immigrants and favorabality rating. It seems that it is fear of immigrants rather than immigrants themselves that are the problem. There is a similar pattern of course with the UK itself, in that it is general areas with least migrants that are most anti FoM.
The Euro-Barometer results may overstate the fondness for immigration in the UK and other surveys such as the Oxford based Migration Observatory paint a much less positive attitude as shown in Fig. 4. with the greatest number of those surveyed wanting a decrease in immigration.
Members of parliament may well be reflecting the views of their electorate.
Could cultural issues explain the difference between Ireland and England?
Sentiment towards immigrants as very positive in Ireland; indeed it regularly tops the EU survey in terms of positivity and the Euro-Barometer 89 survey, as shown in Figs. 1 and 2 is, no exception. Northern Ireland also tends to be very positive about immigration; even the DUP have complained that the migration plans set out in the White Paper are too restrictive. Scotland also is very positive about immigration. Hostility towards immigration is largely an English concern.
In England readers of the Mail, Sun and Express are bombarded with relentless anti-immigration headlines as illustrated in Fig. 5. Nothing like this exists in Ireland, or if it does, it is to a much lesser extent. Not only are immigrants portrayed as being criminals and terrorists, they are accused of stealing jobs, lowering wages, increasing house prices and putting stress on schools and the NHS.
Very little of this is actually true. Strain on public services are almost exclusively down to the Government’s “austerity agenda.” There is little to no evidence of immigrants stealing jobs or lowering wages. One expects such lies from the Tories, rather than making the positive case for immigration, they have cowardly gone down the populist route. Even more depressing and distressing is to have anti immigration sentiments repeated by Labour.
House prices are complex. From the Migration Observatory:
Evidence on the impacts of migration on house prices in the UK remains inconclusive. Some studies have addressed this question by comparing house prices in areas with lower and higher levels of migration. They found, counterintuitively, that migration to a local area led to a decrease in house prices. Using data from 2003 to 2010 for England and Wales, Sá (2014) found that a 1% increase in the stock of the foreign-born relative to the local population led to a decrease of 1.7% in house prices. A similar result emerged from a study by Braakmann (2013), who also found that price decreases took place primarily at the bottom of the distribution (i.e. in less expensive housing).
Housing and Health access are also major issues in Ireland. Rentier Capitalism seems largely blamed on The Housing Shortage and the Health access problems put down to lack of home care support and other non immigration related issues.
Velocity arguments have been used. England has had a long history of taking in migrants, but it was only recently in England that they have arrived in such large numbers. Approximately 1m Poles for example since 2004. The argument is that it is not the total number of migrants, but the speed at which they have arrived which is the main problem. This can not be the only issue as not only does Ireland have more migrants per capita, but they have nearly all arrived in the past 25 years or so. Until the 1990’s Ireland was a country that did not attract working migrants in large numbers, though certain areas such as West Cork have long been popular with British and German retirees and artists.
It seems that both Ireland and England have similar problems, but the fraction of the population that blames immigrants for the underlying problems is much lower in Ireland than England. There is no question that some of the press and many politicians in England have behaved disgracefully. There must, however, be underlying cultural issues otherwise such attitudes could not have taken hold.
Longer Running Cultural Issues
There are obvious difference between Ireland and England. The major one is population size and density: England has more than 10 times the population and a much higher population density. The overcrowded argument is often used in terms of migration in England but almost never in Ireland.
England has historically been far more prosperous than Ireland. It is a country to which one moved to find jobs and prosperity. But there are still parts of England, for example in the NE in former mining towns, which are very insular. Even moving 20 miles away is considered strange. I was discussing with a teacher recently who worked at Ashington. Newcastle upon Tyne (15 miles away) was viewed as a far off place which was rarely, or never, visited. The teacher acted as career advisor and the height of ambition seemed running an ice cream van.
Ireland is very different. There is a feeling of inter-connectiveness in all aspects of society. FoM is not something for the rich. The Auf Wiedersehen, Pet mentality is still extremely strong in Ireland. This has historically been the case ever since the Famine or even before. I was reading In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher (father) recently. Writing about 1920 two passages stood out.
The first is a slight aside during the Irish War of Independence c 1921, describing his childhood:
Twice or three times we hid in the dykes from a lorry load of Black and Tans – one of whose favourite recreation was the taking of pot-shots at ‘moving targets’, human or animal; poor men – they were monsters to us then, and only later did we realize they were for the most part crazed with looted drink and for the fear of the swift vengeance that might at any moment speak the last word to them.
The Black and Tans of course were notorious and did little to improve Irish/English relations.
Far more relevant to this article is the following:
The road was a link to our world outside, many of our people had travelled far on it, some never to return, some to come back to the quiet places. There was the man who stuck his spade in the potato ridge and climbed over the ditch to give directions to a bewildered foreigner in fluent German that he had learned in his twenty years in Milwaukee and there were the two brothers who used to hold their private conversations in Maori. There was a man who carried his pack over the White Horse Pass on the trail to the Klondyke and another who had marched over the Khyber Pass to Kabul and a very old man who had seen the approach of the relieving columns from his post on a roof top in Lucknow. Another had laid telephone cables in Montevideo and another had dug gold in Kalgoorlie and another had punched cattle in Texas. The road linked us to many a different corner of the world.
My father grew up about a mile outside the small village of Athea on the Limerick Kerry border. There is no reason to believe that it is was in any way unusual. But in total contrast to Ashington, there is inter-linkage to the outside world. In that short passages there are references to the US, NZ, Canada, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, South America and Australia.
Athea even in the 1920 seemed a place of were one could travel the world, it seemed a place from which anything was possible and you could make your mark on the world. Ashington, by contrast, sadly even 100 years later seems far more insular and lacks ambition. These people have been failed – almost thrown on the slag-heap of their former coal mines.
There is no doubt that FoM has been badly misunderstood in the UK. There have been decades of misinformation from the right wing press and shameful short term political opportunism from both major parties. This obviously needs to be turned around.
Whatever happens over the next few weeks regarding Brexit, there is a need to regenerate hope and ambition in many of the left behind communities. A true reboot of the UK is needed.