Vince Cable is fundamentally wrong to suggest that there is no great argument of liberal principle for free movement and his case for ending free movement is weak. He ought to revise his views to be in more in keeping with liberal values which, in the face of rising and fierce anti-migrant rhetoric, are sorely needed.
His assertion that ‘British opposition to immigration is mainly colour-blind’ is simply not true.
Fears and prejudices were purposefully stoked during the referendum with explicit scapegoating, disingenuous scaremongering about Turkish migrants and in particular Farage’s appalling blatantly non-colour-blind Breaking Point’ poster campaign.
Hate crime has soared since the referendum. The vast majority of the targets of xenophobic incidents and abuse have been EU migrants in particular citizens from Eastern European countries.
Islamophobia and associated crimes have also risen exponentially. Note the 25 serious incidents of anti-muslim hate crimes recorded in the three days after the Brexit vote. People are explicitly abusing muslims in the streets ‘because we voted out’, shouting ‘shouldn’t you be on a plane back to Pakistan? We voted you out!’
The EU referendum vote has unleashed an ugly force of racism where those who hold prejudiced views feel emboldened to shout, abuse and attack people in the street, post excrement through people’s letter boxes and rip off people’s hijabs in public.
Racially motivated anti-migrant rhetoric is alive and fierce today and must be opposed not ignored.
Secondly, Cable correctly notes that freedom of movement is not (currently) a universal right: it only applies to EU citizens. Migrants from non-EU countries face stricter controls and ‘harsh’ visa regulations. It is true that there is an inconsistency here.
However it does not follow that we ought to have stricter and ‘harsh’ controls on EU citizens. If Vince finds these harsh regulations on non-EU migrants unfair, and is in favour of freedom to travel and work as he suggests, then he should be in favour of reducing such restrictions, not increasing them for EU citizens. It would be consistent to argue for fewer restrictions and, in Cable’s words, a ‘more rational’ immigration policy.
Cable’s case for restricting freedoms and rights of EU citizens (including our own) is controversial and unsupported. His case may depend on the claim that there is ‘no great argument of liberal principle for free EU movement’. This is his third fundamental error.
Let’s start with universal human rights. Article 13 of the UDHR states that ‘everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country’. We can assume that Cable fully supports this right. If he didn’t he would support repressive military states denying their citizens their freedom to leave.
It is inconsistent to not then recognise that therefore another state must receive the person. The world is fully divided into territories with borders. You physically cannot leave one without entering another. If you have a right to leave a country then it is simple fact that you therefore have the corresponding right to reside in another country. Migration then is considered a human right: a fundamental liberal principle.
Furthermore, free movement is grounded in liberal principles of individual freedom and autonomy as well as egalitarianism. Individuals ought to have maximal and equal freedoms and opportunities to live their lives as they wish according to their own values. If that includes migrating to work or for pleasure then it is impermissible for the state to decide to restrict their freedom or opportunity to do so. There are even further liberal values of freedom of association, non-discrimination, tolerance, respecting multiculturalism and diversity as enriching society that ground freedom of movement. We can take our pick of arguments from liberal principles in favour of free movement.
Lastly it is empirically overwhelming that migration is not the cause of the problems and challenges we face in our country and in fact it is vital to our public services, enriching society and supporting the economy. The housing crisis, social care and NHS funding problems, lack of investment and opportunities in lower-income communities, rising wealth and income inequality and so on are not the fault of migrants and Cable knows this. He is wrong to give in to UKIP to concede migration as the significant issue to be addressed.
His case for ending free movement is very weak indeed. In the face of the deafening onslaught of anti-migration rhetoric, liberals should be extra vigilant and strong in standing up for our pro-migration principles.
The Conservatives are seemingly opting for hard-brexit and an end to free movement and Labour are showing signs of trying to out-UKIP UKIP in scaremongering that immigration ‘risks the safety in our streets’. If we are the last party in the UK defending free movement and the rights and freedoms of our migrant brothers and sisters then so be it. This defence has never been so sorely needed and Cable should revise his views to be a part of it.
* Bradley is an active member of the Lib Dems as a council member for both the SLF and LD4SOS, standing for local elections in 2014 and 2016 and as borough organiser for Camden in 2016. He also has a leading role in the Lib Dem campaign to raise donations for refugees and lobbying the government to settle more refugees. He is currently studying for his PhD in moral and political philosophy specialising in the philosophy of migration, borders and refugees.