Defending Free Movement

Last night I spoke at the launch meeting of the Alliance for Free Movement, hosted by Caroline Lucas at the Houses of Parliament.   The alliance is a broad-based movement of organisations, politicians, unions and NGOS, whose aim is to defend, uphold and extend the EU’s free movement rules at a time when the concept of free movement tends to be depicted more often than not as another of the many evils inflicted on the nation by the ‘dictatorship of Brussels.’

The initiative came out of a joint letter to the Guardian last month, of which I was one of the co-signatories.  Its stated aim is ‘to champion the right to live, work, study and retire abroad.  We want to defend and extend the freedom to move.  Migrants have not run down our public services, failed to build proper housing or caused a race to the bottom on wages or conditions.  These are results of political choices made by governments and corporations.’

Last night’s panel made these points in various ways.  Caroline Lucas spoke with her usual lucid eloquence about the importance of migration to the UK.  The barrister Colin Yeo spoke about the legal nightmare that is likely to unfold post-Brexit regarding EU nationals.   A Spanish nurse who has lived and worked in the UK for 17 years spoke movingly about  the insecurity which he and so many other EU nationals have felt since the referendum.  A speaker from Unison spelt out the dire consequences that are already unfolding for the NHS as European nurses, radiographers and other staff continue to leave the country in droves because of the poisoned post-referendum atmosphere – and all this at a time when British applications for nursing training places have dropped by 20 percent.

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Alliance for Free Movement launch meeting

These panel speeches were followed by sometimes abrasive but mostly thoughtful, passionate and considered contributions from the attendees.  Some had voted Leave and argued that the ‘hard Brexit’ that is now unfolding was not what they voted for. Some made the often-repeated point that ‘not all Leavers are racist.’  Others declared unequivocally that Brext was a racist vote and must be stopped.

These differences were not resolved – and could not be, in the time available – but they made very clear the political faultlines that left/progressive forces in this country will have to negotiate their way round if we are to find a way out of the dismal trajectory in which the country is currently trapped.

On the issue of free movement however, there should be no doubts or ambiguities. This is a principle that the left – in the broadest sense of the term – must fight for, even in its limited European form.  To abandon it would inflict enormous damage on British society – not to mention the millions of people whose lives are likely to be disrupted if Amber Rudd’s pledge to ‘end freedom of movement as we know it’ is realised.  It would be a giant step backwards and inwards and a capitulation to xenophobic reaction, fear and misinformation.

This is a campaign that can be won.  It has the potential to develop into a really broad coalition of unions, organisations and campaigners.  It can include employers and workers and can reach out across party lines.   Defending freedom of movement means rejecting the politics of scapegoating and fear.  It means recognizing the positive contribution that migrants make to the UK in many different ways.  It means upholding the right of workers to seek work in other countries and to have rights when they do so. It means giving our children and grandchildren the same opportunities that we now have to work, study and retire in Europe.

If we reject even the limited version of free movement enshrined in the EU’s four freedoms then we have very little chance of extending the same principle beyond the EU, and we are likely to entrench ourselves even deeper in our ongoing Trumpish dystopia of walls, fences and militarised borders.

That’s why I went to the meeting last night.   To sign up and find out more, visit www.forfreemovement.org

The Ministry of Fear

It isn’t often that I find myself agreeing with John Major, but in the post-Brexit era you often find allies in places where you would expect to find enemies – and vice versa. Certainly I can’t find much to quibble with about Major’s comments yesterday regarding the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe:

‘I caution everyone to be wary of this kind of populism. It seems to be a mixture of bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. It scapegoats minorities. It is a poison in any political system – destroying civility and decency and understanding. Here in the UK we should give it short shrift, for it is not the people we are – nor the country we are.’

Major is absolutely right, and it says something about the UK’s political class that it should take a former Tory prime minister to say this when there are so many other politicians who should have been have been saying what ought to be obvious to anyone not mesmerised by Ukip and the spectre of the ‘white working class voter.’  One thing is clear though – the British government is most definitely not giving these tendencies ‘short thrift’.

Quite the contrary, and there is no clearer barometer of the government’s willingness to pander to precisely the sentiments that Major denounces than that the British Home Office.   On Saturday the Home Office deportated Irene Clennel, a Singapore-born woman who has been living in the UK for 29 years and married to a British man for 27 of them.

Clennel has two grown-up children and one grandchild, and her husband is ill and needs a carer. But Clennel’s leave to remain had lapsed because of extended visits to Singapore to visit her sick mother, and because her husband’s income doesn’t reach the £18,000 threshold that allows foreign spouses to remain in the country.  So last month Clennel was detained at Dungavel,  and on Saturday she was driven to the airport with £12 in her pocket and no extra clothes,  without even being given the chance to speak to her husband and flown back to Singapore.

The Home Office justified this incredible act of cruelty with the morally inane bureaucratese that it always uses in such cases, that ‘ All applications for leave to remain in the UK are considered on their individual merits and in line with the immigration rules. We expect those with no legal right to remain in the country to leave.’

When the Home Office behaves like this, and it often does, it tends to be criticised for its ‘insensitivity’ as though such things happen only through some misplaced bureaucratic overzealousness.   It would be interesting, but impossible, to study the individual psychology and motivations of the officials who make such decisions.  And to some extent it would be irrelevant, because such cases are not aberrations, but products of official policy.

No one would expect a government minister or Her Majesty’s officials to clap their hands and say ‘hurrah! One less immigrant!’ about Irene Clennel – not when the English language provides them with so much evasive verbiage about ‘individual merits’ and ‘immigration rules’ to disguise the malignant brutality of such decisions.

But the Clennel deportation is one more consequence of a political agenda whose single overrriding and obsessive objective when it comes to immigration is to remove as many people as possible – whoever they are and wherever they come from – so that the government of the day can boast how ‘tough’ it can be and add another statistic to reassure the public that its ‘concerns’ are being taken seriously.

This is how it’s been for years, but now it’s getting a lot worse, as anti-immigrant phobia rises to a new pitch of strident hysteria.  Already the Home Office has been sending out messages to EU nationals who have been here for decades that they should ‘make preparations to leave’.   Last month the Home Office was granted new powers that enable it to call into question the right of residence of EU nationals who don’t have comprehensive sickness insurance.  And yesterday Amber Rudd – yet another of the seemingly endless hard-faced gargoyles that Tory governments never seem to run out of – declared that ‘freedom of movement as we know it’ is now over.

The full implications of these developments are yet to become clear, but already they have struck fear and confusion into millions of people who now have no idea what is going to happen to them or to their family members, and are now expected to pass through the Home Office’s narrowing portal.   Let no one think that the Home Office does this because it is ‘insensitive’.  It does it because it is told to, by an arrogant, callous, and cynical government that simply does not give a damn about the human consequences of its decisions.

And the government does this in the knowledge that there are people up and down the country who actually want it to behave like this and will reward it with votes when it does.   So in this sense I have to disagree with John Major.  When it comes to ‘destroying civility and decency and understanding’ that is exactly what this monstrous government is doing, with the complicity of the British public.

We have allowed this government to pander to bigotry, prejudice and intolerance. We have allowed it to scapegoat minorities. We have allowed these tendencies to poison our political system to the point when we are increasingly incapable of seeing the men and women who come here as anything more than parasites seeking ‘our benefits.’

Until these attitudes change, we can expect a lot more cases like Irene Clennel in the coming months and years.  Because contrary to what John Major has said, that is the country we are,  and the Home Office is the mirror of who we are.