Could we leave behind the Sophoclean tragedy – or the TV mini-series, whichever is your preferred cultural frame of reference – for a moment and try to talk sense about what has just happened? That is to say – about what the country has told us in terms so clear that they bowled over most of the principal players?
It is quite odd, when you think of it, how little attention is now being paid to the issue that is understood to be critical to the chaos in both major parties. This is presumably because it terrifies most serious politicians. Until Michael Gove’s speech on Friday launching his surprise candidacy, almost no one had made any significant comment about it at all.
Considering that the ostensible trigger for the forced removal of Boris Johnson from the Tory leadership contest were the words in his Telegraph column that dealt with precisely this toxic subject, and that it is also the presumed reason for Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic loss of support among Labour’s traditional voters in the North, I think it’s about time we discussed immigration (there, I’ve said it) in a grown-up way, don’t you?
What Boris actually wrote was: “It is said that those who voted Leave last week were mainly driven by anxieties about immigration. I do not believe that is so.” Whether this statement was factually accurate or not, it gave the impression that he was downgrading the importance of those anxieties in the interests, perhaps, of disassociating himself from the sort of people who express sympathy for them.
And then there was the hapless Mr Corbyn, who appeared to be so immersed in the assumptions of salon liberals in north London that he failed to have any sense of the dangerous despair and alienation that had developed in what used to be called “Labour heartlands”.
Instead of attacking the forces of global capitalism for making cynical use of the “free movement of people” for its own purposes, as he might have done given his political orientation, he seemed more comfortable implicitly lecturing his erstwhile supporters for what he saw as intolerance.
This brings us to the heart of the matter – and the possibility of discussing unlimited migration in humane and unashamed terms.
Let’s look properly at what the EU commissioners call the sacred “four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. Do you notice something slightly jarring about that list? Goods are things, capital is money, services are transactions, but people are of a different category, are they not? Sentient beings with cultural ties, feelings, attitudes, patterns of behaviour, social assumptions and… add all the other obvious words you can think of.
Not only does their free movement in unlimited numbers present a much more complex and potentially delicate prospect, but surely it seems quite wrong to lump people in with manufactured goods and commercial services. Is this the liberal dream of Europe: to build an economic and political system that shunts people around a continent to fill whatever quotas big business requires at any given moment?
In fact, as Mr Corbyn might have said if he hadn’t been otherwise occupied with comparing Israel to Isil, this is what Marx called the “commodification of labour” – treating workers as if they were just one more resource for international capital to import and export, or to use as leverage in keeping wage levels down.
But even if you are not a Marxist, you should appreciate that what the free movement of people amounts to is the stripping of poorer countries’ greatest asset – their most able and ambitious people. If the rich states of western and northern Europe can plunder the populations of the poor southern and eastern states indefinitely, then those less fortunate countries will never emerge into secure, functioning prosperity. They will, in effect, become like colonial protectorates, providing an endless breeding ground of cheap labour to serve their wealthy dominant EU “partners”.
What is idealistic about that? It is a pretty neat example of exploitation in the true sense of the word – which is what the Left-wing leadership of the Labour Party might have been saying in support of its own grass roots if it hadn’t had its head up its own fundament.
If pro-EU protagonists wanted to be truly benevolent, they would be urging (rather than lamenting) the relocation of businesses to the struggling eastern countries where they could provide people with employment and opportunity at home instead of forcing them to become wandering tribes travelling thousands of miles in search of decent life chances. The consequences of the dislocation in these itinerant lives are at least as great as the disruption to the communities which they come to inhabit here. Young eastern Europeans who migrate west in search of work leave families and communities – and countries – behind who might have benefited from their determination and their skills.
Ah yes, there’s another crucial term in this dialogue of the deaf: skills. It is often said with glib insouciance, that migrants are particularly useful for the economy – and no real problem for the indigenous population – because they are prepared to take the unskilled and low-skilled jobs that British people are no longer willing to do.
So what precisely is it that is being proposed with such complacency: that this country should accept a permanent underclass of benefit-dependent work-refuseniks who will lead pointless under-achieving lives supported by the productivity of imported cheap labour? Not my idea of an edifying future. The poor countries are denuded of their brightest and best while the richer countries harbour a resentful, defeatist subculture of hopelessness which no one pretends will ever disappear. Wonderful. What a recipe for civil unrest and persistent disillusion that will be.
Oddly – in this most confused of political climates – it was Mr Gove (who is notably not Left wing) who drew attention to the essential problem. He asserted that we are now effectively divided into “two countries”: those who have benefited from globalisation and the “flotsam and jetsam in the flows of capital and labour” who were forced to provide fodder for “big businesses [which] have rigged the market in their favour”. That social divide turned out to be more explosive than anyone on either side of the referendum argument expected, hence the disarray which followed the result.
I honestly find the theories of a long-standing plot to replace Johnson with Gove when it came to the leadership contest hard to credit for precisely this reason: the Leave campaign did not expect to win. T1hey therefore had no reason to anticipate, and plan for, the vacuum left by the resignation of David Cameron. Everybody was taken by surprise by the depth and breadth of public resistance to EU membership. Suddenly, when it was time to get serious, too many of the participants found the prospect of Boris turning into Prince Hal and renouncing his own inner Falstaff less than credible.
But the real story here is still the result of the referendum and what it says about national public opinion. It may or may not be true that a large proportion of the electorate voted Leave because of their anxieties about uncontrolled immigration. If they did, and their concerns and resentments are dismissed as unworthy by the sort of people who, as Mr Gove put it, have benefited from globalisation, then there will be a further erosion of trust in politics and democratic institutions. But even if they did not, the whole matter deserves rather more considered discussion and a lot less name-calling.