It’s best to err on the side of caution in claiming to have left any personal mark on the course of public policy. Just occasionally, however, one would like to think that some interventions really did make a difference.
I had that experience over the holidays when I met Joe, who is Romanian. The stories he recounted took me back to a meeting of a Whitehall committee, circa 2002, dealing with issues arising from the impending expansion of the European Union. One of these involved 'freedom of movement' and who, from accession states, would be granted that right. My ministerial colleague from the Home Office intimated from her civil service brief that the intention was to restrict it to a select list of professional categories.
I found that offensive and suggested that since we were a party of working people, maybe working people in these countries should also be allowed the opportunity to travel, sell their labour and improve their lot. A bar-room hush ensued before a couple of colleagues joined in and it emerged that most of us felt the same way.
Without doubt, there would have been higher forums in which this matter was discussed before that liberal interpretation of free movement was adopted by the Labour government. For my encounter with Joe, however, it was good for the soul to recall which side I had been on, and maybe to have influenced the debate – and his fate.
It’s easy to reduce the word 'immigrant' to generalisations, statistics and attitudes. Occasionally, it is helpful to hear of individual human experiences, as I did on this occasion. Joe is what any sensible person would regard as a model citizen – hard-working, paying taxes, married with two kids, passionate about education. He has entered the UK on two occasions under contrasting circumstances.
First time, he came as an illegal immigrant in a container. That was 15 years ago but he still becomes emotional, recounting the harrowing tale of his transactions with gangsters in shunting yards near Milan, followed by a hellish five-day journey in a container filled with four other human beings and a consignment of Asti Spumante.
There was the scary moment when another container was dropped on top of them. Then the fear that their container might lie for days or weeks in a port they could not identify. Then breaking out of it once on board ship, deafened by the unbearable noise of the engines. Then finding ingenious means of getting ashore and over the fence unchallenged.
By most standards though, Joe’s journey was a success. He completed it alive and made his way to an area where there was illegal work in a mafia-run industry, paid a pittance far below the national minimum wage and living in squalid accommodation. All of that is the reality of illegal immigration and the denial of free movement of labour.
Then, in 2007, Romania joined the EU (along with Bulgaria, three years after other accession states). Joe returned to Romania, flew back to London without let or hindrance, found legal, properly-paid employment, perfected his English, paid taxes and started a family. All of that is the reality of a policy which recognises the need for immigration, makes people welcome and grants rights in return for responsibilities.
My timely conversation with Joe sums up why I believe the current UK government should swallow hard, discover pragmatism and accept that free movement of labour (ok, give or take a bit of window-dressing) should be an integral part of whatever post-Brexit settlement is arrived at. This country needs immigrant labour. Public services rely on it. Bars and restaurants cry out for it. Whole industries, particularly where low (but legal) pay prevails, depend on it. Pretending otherwise flies in the face of reality.
Just as important is the other side of Joe’s story. Declaring an end to free movement of labour between the EU (continuing) and the UK will not stop migration. Desperate people will again resort to desperate means. There are now far more family ties and incentives to be here. The question is not 'EU immigration or not' but 'legal or illegal'; gangster-ridden, fear-laden human trafficking or a humane system of work without borders (from which many of our own people also benefit).
I am aware of the intellectual flaw in this argument. If it applies to free movement between EU countries and the UK, then why not to everywhere else – starting with accession 'hopefuls' like Albania, Serbia and Turkey, before we even get to points further east. My only answer is to admit the inconsistency and accept it as our starting point. There is no utopian solution on offer. But what exists strikes a balance and throwing it away would create far more problems and injustices than it would resolve.
Where does Scotland fit into this? Like me, the Scottish government favours the retention of free movement of labour with EU countries. It should advance that case vigorously in its discussions with Whitehall. But it should not weaken, or distract from, valid arguments by seeking to link them to the proposition that, otherwise, Scotland could or should have a different policy in this respect from the rest of the UK.
Regardless of Scotland’s constitutional status, the corollary of different immigration regimes applying north and south of the (invisible) border would be an end to free movement of people and traffic within this island. The idea that the UK would go to all the trouble of leaving the EU and abolishing freedom of movement, only to see the citizens of 26 countries stroll in through a Scottish back-door, is self-evident nonsense. Why bother with a container when they could get the bus from Glasgow Airport to Manchester instead?
The Scottish Nationalists’ only feeble attempt to counter this is by reference to Ireland. It is depressing that they should look to the Irish border and all the baggage it entails as inspiration for their cause. But in any event, the parallel is fallacious. Most manifestations of a 'hard border' within Ireland were phased out before the EU existed for the simple reason that they were likely to be blown up. So Ireland simply accepts the same immigration regime as the UK (i.e. non-Schengen).
Settling the question of how EU-Ireland and non-EU Northern Ireland will deal with border issues is tricky but small scale. Anomalies can be lived with internally while serious control points are at UK ports and airports. The land border between Scotland and England is an entirely different proposition. And remember, the more separate we become, the more it will be the UK’s decision on how to manage it from their side that matters – whatever glib assurances are given by Edinburgh’s promoters of separation.
As in all matters relating to the Brexit negotiations, the Scottish government should put aside its prejudices, stop making impossible demands and get on with serious common sense arguments which might best serve the interests of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. Whether they like it or not, we are all in the same Brexit boat – and dropping the pretence that Scotland can have a different policy on freedom of movement to the rest of the UK would not be a bad way to start being taken seriously. This is an argument with human implications that demand more than posturing.