It was on an April day in 2010 that Gordon Brown – Labour leader, Prime Minister, and one of the most brilliant statesmen of his generation -–met his political nemesis. Her name was Gillian Duffy, and the place was a street in Rochdale, where she was a long-standing Labour supporter. Asked about her concerns, Mrs Duffy talked about the number of EU workers arriving in her community, taking jobs and resources – as she saw it – from local people.
Gordon Brown nodded, and argued back a little; but later, in his car – with a microphone left open – he was heard to describe Mrs Duffy as a “bigoted woman”. There is footage of him sitting in a radio studio as the tape was played back to him; and as the brilliant American commentator Jon Stewart put it, viewers could almost see his political soul leaving his body, as the scratchy recording played out.
It was a defining moment in British politics, of course; the moment when the yawning gap between “elite” opinion on immigration, and the views of some of Britain’s most hard-pressed communities, became clear. And from that moment, British politicians of most parties have been running terrified of their own armies of Gillian Duffys, deeply opposed to immigration; so much so that they are willing to embrace the general belief at Westminster that if there is one area of Brexit negotiations on which they cannot afford to compromise, it is the end of freedom of movement between the UK and the European Union, as of March 2019.
Yet for all the force of the Duffy moment, the sheer difficulty now being experienced by both leading UK parties in framing an immigration policy for the Brexit age suggests that this is not a simple story about an out-of-touch elite bowing to the wisdom of the people. That there was strong anti-immigration feeling involved in the Brexit vote is beyond doubt, although it was far from being the only factor.
Yet survey after survey has shown that the beliefs of British voters about immigration – from the proportion of the British population born elsewhere, to the contribution made by migrants when they get here – are massively wide of the mark, doubtless because of a 40-year campaign of shrill disinformation by some British media organisations; and that on this issue at least, the Leave vote was based more on myth than on reality, and on a misdiagnosis of the real causes of misery in the communities concerned. Those real causes are well known, of course; the deliberate winding-down of Britain’s industrial base and the well-paid, unionised jobs that went with it, chronic underinvestment in the regions hardest hit by de-industrialisation, and – once the EU expanded to the east – an absolute failure by successive British government to take their own employment law seriously, and to prevent cowboy employers from exploiting those newcomers as cheap labour. Even if we fully recognise that problem, though, we are still left with a situation where politicians seem torn between complying with the perceived political imperative to end freedom of movement, and acknowledging the massive and essential role played by most EU workers in our society.
So at the moment, some UK government ministers seem determined that all freedom of movement will cease in March 2019, while others are desperately making soothing noises about long transition periods. Over on the Labour side, the confusion is even greater, as the leadership seems at one moment to reject the single market and the customs union altogether, and at the next starts to nuance its position again.
And in Scotland, the SNP government – presiding over a nation with a relatively small and ageing population – has taken a commendably strong pro-EU and pro-immigration stance; but can hardly get the words out of its mouth before someone points out that large numbers of Scots, too, have now come to share the UK-wide prejudice against immigration to which all politicians are now supposed to defer.
This is, in other words, the kind of chaos that results when politicians start to make policy in response to populist myth, rather than to the reality of the society they represent; a similar disarray currently surrounds the repeal of Obamacare in the US.
And behind all this sound and fury, meanwhile, there are a growing number of real human tragedies that no-one in the upper echelons of Britain’s two main parties seems to have the courage to name, never mind to prevent.
The first is the tragedy of the hundreds of thousands of valued EU workers who are now, in many cases, making plans to leave, such is the uncertainty they face; the health workers, care workers and young entrepreneurs who have become part of the lifeblood of our economy and our communities.
The second is the tragedy of the 48 per cent, those 16 million people across Britain who never wanted to leave the EU at all, and are now obliged to live through the multiple disruptions of Brexit without either government or opposition willing to stand up for our views and our culture.
And finally, there is the tragedy of the future generations who would have voted Remain by a vast majority, and whose entire future will now be darkened by this ill-fated decision.
To anyone with any heart, vision, or sense of history, the very phrase “the end of freedom of movement between the UK and the European Union” should sound like a knell, marking the end of an era when the young people of Britain and Europe could come and go as they pleased, living, studying, loving and working without thought of borders, visas, and “leave to remain”. And as we try to navigate the sheer self-inflicted mess of these years, it’s surely their future that should be our highest priority; while we seek to heal the neglected social and economic pain that led to this crisis, to limit the damage done, and to re-create for the next generation the hard-won sense of freedom that could once be taken for granted, but will now have to be painstakingly rebuilt, decision by decision, treaty by treaty, year by year.