Vince Cable writes for this week’s New Statesman arguing for the end to the EU’s free movement of people.
He builds on the themes he initially set out on an article for this site just after the referendum – which turned out to be our most read article of 2016.
In the New Statesman he writes:
As a liberal economist, I welcome freer trade and globalisation in general; and as a political liberal I oppose attempts to fence people in. I naturally value the freedom to travel around Europe for business or pleasure with minimal restriction.
But I have serious doubts that EU free movement is tenable or even desirable. First, the freedom is not a universal right, but selective. It does not apply to Indians, Jamaicans, Americans or Australians. They face complex and often harsh visa restrictions. One uncomfortable feature of the referendum was the large Brexit vote among British Asians, many of whom resented the contrast between the restrictions they face and the welcome mat laid out for Poles and Romanians.
He goes on to argue that while there are benefits to immigration, they are not as conclusive as we would like to think for the country. He sets out what he thinks is the way forward:
The argument for free movement has become tactical: it is part of a package that also contains the wider economic benefits of the single market. Those benefits are real, which is why the government must prioritise single market access and shared regulation. Yet that may not be possible to reconcile with restrictions on movement. The second-best option is customs union status, essential for supply chain industries.
I do not see much upside in Brexit, but one is the opportunity for a more rational immigration policy. First, it will involve legitimising the position of EU nationals already here. It must involve a more sensible way of dealing with overseas students, who are not immigrants and benefit the UK. The permeability of the Irish border must lead to a united Ireland in Europe. And, not least, there can be a narrative in which control on labour movements is matched by control on capital – halting the takeovers that suffocate the innovative companies on which the country’s future depends.
I find his analysis profoundly depressing, particularly as he talks about the politics of free movement being “conclusively hostile.” I feel that we should be trying to change the weather on that rather than simply going along with the right wing media and politicians.
My instinct is for as much free movement as possible . The world is so much smaller now and people make connections and fall in love with people from all over the world. They should be free to make their homes wherever suits them. Where I agree with Vince is that our immigration system is way too harsh. I’ve seen too many examples where families have been split up because one partner isn’t allowed to come into this country. One of the worst things we agreed to in the coalition was the income requirement for spouses to enter the country which discriminates against women and the less well-off.
Vince was one of the most liberal voices in the coalition government on immigration (and lots of other things, too). He spent his five years in office fighting with Theresa May on things like post study work visas and overseas students. He also fought the Tories to crack down on employers who didn’t pay the minimum wage. He is making these arguments from a good place with a good reputation.
Vince is one of the Liberal Democrats I respect most. I disagree with him on this, though. There are so many other solutions to the problems he outlines. The first thing would be to construct an immigration system that treats people like human beings. The second would be to ensure that workers are not exploited. The third would be to make sure that where we need more houses, schools and hospitals, we build more houses, schools and hospitals.
The big argument we need to win is about the need for the state to do this stuff. Since Thatcher, paying taxes has been something to be undertaken only with extreme reluctance. Living in a civilised society where citizens are well looked after costs money. The benefits of happy, productive, healthy citizens are clear. So let’s set out what we could achieve with a more powerful state. The small-state right wing consensus which has dominated our politics for four decades has damaged us. It’s time to make a stand and show that we can have a fairer, more equal and open country which welcomes those who move here to contribute. That will do much more to re-engage those who feel that politics and government has nothing to offer them.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings