Queue-jumping: a few points in response

After returning yesterday evening from my trip out experiencing the atypical calm of a Hebridean autumn day, opening my Twitter account brought me denunciations of Theresa May’s reference to citizens from other EU countries coming to the UK as ‘queue jumping’. (And so, from calm to rage.) Quite rightly, too – it was offensive, shameful phrasing at which we can only wonder the reaction had this been said in Brussels, or Paris, or Madrid about British citizens taking advantage of free movement to make their lives in other countries – and no more ignorable for being just the latest in a long line of similar statements from Theresa May. I couldn’t pass up the chance to comment; and all the more so since the No. 10 spokesperson has apparently been trying to deny she said it: a pointlessly fallacious exercise (seemingly about semantics) when video exists of precisely what she said, and helpfully sub-titled, too. Either way, May was yesterday blowing a dog-whistle.

Firstly, the quote itself:

‘Once we’ve left the EU, we will be fully in control of who comes here. It will no longer be the case that EU nationals, regardless of the skills or experience they have to offer, can jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney, or software developers from Delhi.’

That is Brexit – right there. A complete misunderstanding of what EU rules and regulations allow us to do as a member; an obsession with queues and with others not following British (and British-influenced) queuing pecularities; and a hark back to the times when our closest links were not with those who with whom we have been building relationships over the last forty five years but with the countries of Empire.

The UK is not currently a part of the Schengen Agreement, so it still has borders at which it can routinely check the credentials of all who enter; and EU law means that those looking to stay beyond three months must be able to support themselves (and have comprehensive sickness insurance). The UK cannot enforce the three-month rule since it has no municipal procedure for registering citizens as do others in the EU (e.g. Belgium) and, while some might argue that this is a good thing from the perspective of the individual freedom of the citizen, it is, nevertheless, a public policy choice which prevents the UK from operating the rules of free movement as the EU actually envisages.

EU nationals working in this country to build their lives and this country are also skilled workers – some might even be engineers or software developers – and many of them were actually invited here by government departments to practise their skills and their professions. Several pieces of evidence – e.g. from the NHS – suggests that public services in particular may struggle in the light of the now-declining numbers of people coming into the UK for work from other EU countries. Furthermore, May’s reference has a presumption that freedom of movement for EU nationals is largely composed of people who have skill sets lower than those of engineers and software developers. Evidence on the skills mix is complicated but it is the case that ex-EU migrants are much more likely to be over-qualified for the jobs they are doing. And none of this is to ignore that care workers are required by the UK’s labour market – and increasingly so as our ‘domestic’ population ages.

The ending of free movement is of course a two-way street. In ending free movement for others to come here from the EU we are ending the free movement of UK nationals overseas, too. It is a truism to think that most ex-UK migrants have retired to Spain – the majority (some 80%) are of working age and, like most ex-EU nationals in this country, are likely actually to be in work. Regardless of the life situation of ex-UK migrants, they have all exercised entirely valid treaty rights and to castigate them, too, by implication, as queue jumpers is a disgracefully reactionary response.

The Migration Advisory Committee recently concluded that – to pick one of its several conclusions – ‘It remains the case that the majority of studies find no or little impact of immigration [i.e. from EEA countries] on the employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce’ (para 1.30, p. 29). It is impossible to argue that importing engineers from Sydney would improve or deteriorate this position – but the logical end-point of seeing ex-EU nationals as ‘queue jumpers’ in the future is that the engineer from Sydney is likely to be preferred to the one from Germany. After all, pushing ‘queue jumpers’ back down the queue is the correct procedural etiquette. May’s quote is, in this context, insidious.

And finally, there is, of course, no such ‘queue’ of migrants waiting for jobs to emerge before coming to the UK – nor any such ‘priority’ being somehow given as a result to EU nationals. What there is, is an entirely arbitrary (and entirely baseless) ‘target’ of getting net migration (from all places elsewhere) down to below 100,000 annually first introduced by David Cameron in 2011 and then enthusiastically adopted by Theresa May. This immigration cap – declared recently by Alan Manning, chair of the Migration Advisory Commission, to be a ‘political target’ rather than actual immigration policy – is what is driving the notion that an engineer from Sydney can’t get into the country whereas Pawel the apprentice plumber fresh out of vocational school has no problem in doing so. It is a choice – we can have both depending on the requirements of our labour market, but it suits the government’s agenda to pretend that we can’t.

And therein lies the main issue – this relentless banging on about the problems of EU immigration is how the government is lining up to sell its ‘deal’. Theresa May – economically a remainer but socially and culturally a leaver – has form on this: it is what she knows and we all know that this is the only place where she is comfortable. It is an extension of the ‘hostile environment’ that she instituted when at the Home Office. We can expect more – much more – of this in the coming days and weeks now that the ERG’s loaded rifle has been revealed to be firing no more than blanks: it is May’s only chance of bringing the parliamentary arithmetic into a position that supports her approach.

[Edit: the exchange between journalists and the No. 10 spokesperson has now been published. It is not a meeting of minds – and, as regards the substance? Perhaps we can put it down to Theresa May being, again, very clear. Very clear.]

Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

We’re in the middle of a mini-spell of dry, sunny and calm weather – which makes a change from an autumn which has so far been marked by a surfeit of rain and persistent gales and otherwise high winds. This morning saw barely enough wind to make the grasses lean and a clear sky which, in combination, made the bay free even of ripples of movement and which lent the water a milky sheen, a suggestion of and almost an absence of colour. It was a return to the best days of high summer.

Here, looking north-east from the kitchen door steps, and echoing this site’s new header pic (although this was taken to catch the reflections of late afternoon sun) we have Eabhal and Ruebhal in the centre of the frame (and the Dark Island turbine) but what is taking centre stage is the sea, streaked blue and translucent in the shallows of a retreated, but just off a neap, tide (with water levels low but a high tide line) and with a texture starting to be shaped by a growing breath of wind. The turbine, pointing south, and a sole oystercatcher at the bottom of the photo provide the only movement.

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Some three and a half hours later than the noon at which this photo was taken, and a short bike ride mostly finished, I stopped at Loch Bi just at the Aird A’Mhachair side of the Ard na Monadh road, with the sun due to set less than 40 minutes later and offering photographers full golden hour mode. A little cloud cover offered both a way of catching the sun’s rays as well as a means of allowing me to point the camera at the sun, with a stronger wind providing ripples across the water of the loch – mostly freshwater but with a component of salt water provided by very narrow channels funnelling through from Loch Sgioport – and lending it the creased look of silver cigarette packet paper.

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After so much rain and wind, days like these – and there a couple more yet to come – provide essential points of recharge, both for nature and for ourselves, anchoring us into a sustaining reassurance of calm amidst the headlong tilt at the senses presented by the hammeringly persistent rain and wind.

Brexit and government (in)competence

While we wait for the ‘will it, won’t it’ Cabinet to get the final details of the draft agreement still being hammered out in Brussels – the latest being that Wednesday night is the latest possible date to convene a November summit at EU level – I continue to be astonished by the admission of Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, last week that he ‘hadn’t quite understood‘ the importance of the Dover-Calais route for the trade of goods between the UK and Continental Europe. Not only the words of the admission, but also the style of it – Raab shows himself quite clearly to be a man scrabbling about in the dark for the words to describe something that he thinks may be Really Quite Important – is frankly astounding regardless of any consideration of his job as a minister.

It clearly ought to come as no surprise that the most important trade route is actually the shortest – and it takes neither professorial expertise in particle physics to work that out nor even a rudimentary understanding of the importance both to manufacturing companies and food freshness and quality of just-in-time deliveries. But the issue is really one of the extent to which Raab – another committed Brexiteer – has got to grips with his brief. Whatever the political involvement of ministers in the discussions – and I suspect it’s not a lot since the civil service sherpas will be doing most of the spadework – had he really missed his own Prime Minister asking people not to be alarmed about government plans for food and medicines stockpiling? (Don’t panic! Don’t panic!)? Simply failed to spot the import of the physical practicalities of trade links in his own post-lunch/graveyard slot appearance before the Exiting the EU Select Committee when he spoke about stockpiling? Simply missed out on the controversy about turning the M26 into a lorry park? Not in the office that day when his own Department published its technical notices? Or had he simply bought into John Redwood’s (extraordinary) explanation that it would be alright on the night since everything could come through Rotterdam to avoid those pesky French (of course, it can’t since Rotterdam is also in the single market).

It is a cause for worry when the minister with political responsibility and accountability for the state of negotiations is apparently so out of sorts with a geographical map. As well as for the effectiveness of that ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament when MPs will have increasingly little time to digest the content of the withdrawal agreement – clearly part of the government’s strategy to persuade parliament to back a deal (any deal) rather than engage in the chaos of withdrawal with none.

The discussions on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland continue to confound everyone (here’s a clue: it can’t be done while keeping both the 10 DUP MPs (hard Brexiteers in their own right – remember that covertly-funded Metro ad?) and the 50 or so extremists in the ERG happy about the terms of the withdrawal – even if the text of the agreement is now ‘almost ready‘ (this might or might not indicate that is is now more than 95% done). Andrea Leadsom was entirely wrong to talk at the weekend about the need to ‘hold our nerve‘ – this is not a case of taking a negotiation to the brink since this is not a normal negotiation: there are red lines, and implications of red lines, that can point only to one end – and that is a deal that Theresa May cannot sell to her own base. These are not problems of the EU’s making – they are entirely domestic in origin and stem completely from UK government failure to recognise the flaws in its own strategy. Ultimately, this point of reckoning has been coming ever since Theresa May chose to ally with the DUP to save her political skin.

The response to a Brexit deal that cannot pass through parliament – presuming that all Labour MPs hold their nerve on this – has to be a general election. This will have evident consequences for the due date of withdrawal. Keeping the UK at least aligned to the customs union and the EU single market (NB: I would absolutely prefer to remain in the EU) is the only way of preventing extremist Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a deregulated economy based on competition and with clear consequences for public services (much less, in a much-shrunken state with much greater financial implications for the individual) and the NHS (conceded completely to the market) – to say nothing of workers’ rights being swept away. Whatever the confusion over what people did vote for back in 2016, I’d be pretty sure this was not it.

Meanwhile, was it not a complete surprise that the UK was so noticeably absent from the Paris commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice? More than sixty heads of state and government – and, wearing shirt no. 12, er, David Lidington. The choice to make a biblical reading at Westminster Abbey rather than attend the commemoration in Paris sent a very clear, and absolutely shameful, signal. Nevertheless, in reminding everyone that a post-Brexit UK would really rather stay at home it was, instead, a strong pointer to what a travesty ‘Global Britain’ actually is.

Truly, this has been a government of all the talents.