Getty
Show Hide image

Vince Cable is right - liberals should back an end to EU free movement

There are limits to the Cosmopolitan Ukip approach. 

The Liberal Democrat veteran Vince Cable is right that free movement is not going to be politically viable after Brexit. Few people have stauncher credentials than Cable as an economic, social and cultural pro-migration liberal, and he makes a strong case for his liberal tribe rising to the democratic political challenge that the referendum result presents.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn sounds somewhat conflicted over whether he should move on from free movement or continue to support it. This shift in itself, though, shows increasingly that politicians who feel immigration benefits our society, nevertheless understand the post-referendum challenge of rebuilding public confidence in how it's managed. 

The Brexit vote was about more than immigration - but the Leave majority vote undoubtedly represented a vote of no confidence in how governments have handled immigration over the last fifteen years. So the core question for those who believe that Britain benefits from migration is how to rebuild public confidence in it. Responding with a "like it or lump it" approach will squander an important opportunity.

But it is not surprising that Lib Dem party leader Tim Farron was quick to disown Cable's remarks. Farron sees an opportunity to “speak up for the 48 per cent” - though the idea of a 48 per cent tribe of aggrieved Remainers is a mirage. About 6m of the 16m Remain voters only made up their mind in the last four weeks of the campaign. Many pragmatic Remainers now believe that the Government should act on the Leave outcome. A majority of those who voted Remain share Cable’s view that freedom of movement should end too, as the New Economics Foundation’s study of the attitudes of the 48 per cent reveals.

But even a liberal tribe of half of the 48 per cent offers a decent opportunity for a Liberal Democrat party which fell to 8 per cent of the electorate in 2015 to climb back up to 15 per cent.

You could call this strategy "Cosmopolitan Ukip" - a liberal mirror party to Nigel Farage's populist insurgency. These populist liberals articulate a new sense of anger and dispossession in the university towns and metropolitan centres, and even steal the slogan "give us our country back".  As former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg told John Harris for his Radio 4 documentary on populism, the liberals may be challenged with being an out-of-touch elite, but they can claim to be the outsiders now. 

Even if Farron’s approach still makes tactical sense, there are limits to the "Cosmopolitan Ukip" approach too. Even electorally, voters are always more eclectic than pundits and activists realise. To keep their seats,  Lib Dem MPs Norman Lamb in North Norfolk and Greg Mulholland in Leeds will need to combine ardent liberal Remainers with more pragmatic ex-Remain voters and, indeed, the one in three Lib Dem voters who backed Brexit in June.

But the bigger critique of Farron's strategy is about the liberal outcomes his party should pursue. It is important liberal causes are not restricted by being defined as the voice of a minority tribe. The Lib Dems can benefit electorally by differentiating themselves from Labour and Conservative Remainers. However, their ability to actually shape Brexit will depend on forging cross-party alliances in Parliament. Similarly, success on issues like refugee protection, and challenging hate crime, depend on broader support.

Cable’s most interesting point is that “there is no great argument of liberal principle for free EU movement”. While there is a principled argument for EU free movement, it is likely to fail in Britain.

That argument is that we should have open migration from the EU, but not from outside it, because we are citizens of Europe.  In most EU countries, most people put their national identity first, and combine it with a sense of European identity too. That makes EU free movement feel like a hybrid category, combining immigration with internal labour mobility. But Britain has a much weaker sense of European identity - indeed only 15 per cent say they have a sense of European identity, while two-thirds say their identity is national only.

That explains why, in Britain, both supporters and critics of free movement do think it is simply common sense to refer to this as "immigration". If a politician tried to argue that it is a mistake to refer to Italians or Poles in Britain as migrants, because they are EU mobile citizens, most people would simply be baffled. 

Instead, British supporters of EU free movement tend to be simply pro-immigration. They might aspire to the ideal of a borderless world, so consider openness to Europe as a start, rather than believing in the principle of openness to Europeans in particular.

This case for EU free movement is too open for most Brits – and, at the same time, it is too parochial for the most cosmopolitan, while those with Commonwealth connections feel it to be unfair. Asked to design an immigration system from scratch, if the EU did not exist, very few people would make it a point of principle that immigration should prefer Bulgarians to Indians, on the grounds that we are European.

So it is, as Cable argues, “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”.

Open Britain, the successor campaign to the official Remain campaign, recognises that it won’t win the argument for the single market, or for the strongest possible trade relationship with Europe, if it depends on arguing that nothing can change on free movement.

Most people want more control over the pace of migration, while recognising migration itself brings both gains and pressures to British society. The public sees the referendum vote as a chance to strike a balance. This could mean strong support for skilled migration, combined with more control over the scale of low-skilled immigration. My own organisation, British Future, has proposed a preferential migration offer to Europe, where visa-free travel could be accompanied by sector-specific job quotas. This would fit too with the calls from Cabinet ministers, such as Andrea Leadsom on agriculture and Sajid Javid on house-building, to ensure that a more controlled system does involve choosing to keep low and semi-skilled immigration that key sectors need.

Cable has set liberals a challenge. They should rise to it - and back a new system which strikes that balance, and gives Britain a positive offer to take into the negotiations for a new post-Brexit relationship with Europe.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty
Show Hide image

White supremacists are embracing genetic testing - but they aren't always that keen on the results

Users of far-right site Stormfront are resorting to pseudo science and conspiracy theories when DNA tests show they aren't as "pure" as they hoped.

The field of genomics and genetics have undergone almost exponential growth in recent years. Ventures like the Human Genome Project have enabled t humanity to get a closer look at our building blocks. This has led to an explosion in genetic ancestry testingand as of 6 April 2017 23AndMe, one of the most popular commercial DNA testing websites, has genotyped roughly 2 million customers.

It is perhaps unsurprising that one of the markets for genetic testing can be found among white suprmacists desperate to prove their racial purity. But it turns out that many they may not be getting the results they want. 

Stormfront, the most prominent white nationalist website, has its own definition of those who are allowed to count themselves as white - “non-Jewish people of 100 per cent European ancestry.” But many supremacists who take genetic tests are finding out that rather than bearing "not a drop" of non-white blood, they are - like most of us a conglomerate of various kinds of DNA from all over the world including percentages from places such as sub Saharan Africa and Asia. Few are taking it well.

Dr. Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan, of UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and the research institute Data and Society respectively, presented a research study (currently under peer review for publication) at the American Sociological Association a week ago, analysing discussion of GAT on Stormfront forums. Panofsky, Donovan and a team of researchers narrowed down the relevant threads to about 700, with 153 users who had chosen to publish their results online. While Panofsky emphasised that it is not possible to draw many quantitative inferences, the findings of their study offer a glimpse into the white nationalist movement's response to science that doesn't their self perception. 

“The bulk of the discussion was repair talk”, says Panofsky. “Though sometimes folks who posted a problematic result were told to leave Stormfront or “drink cyanide” or whatever else, 'don’t breed', most of the talk was discussion about how to interpret the results to make the bad news go away”.

Overwhelmingly, there were two main categories of reinterpretation. Many responses dismissed GAT as flimsy science – with statements such as a “person with true white nationalist consciousness can 'see race', even if their tests indicate 'impurity'".

Other commentators employed pseudo-scientific arguments. “They often resemble the critiques that professional geneticists, biological anthropologists and social scientists, make of GAT, but through a white nationalist lens", says Panofsky. 

For instance, some commentators would look at percentages of non-European DNA and put it down to the rape of white women by non-white men in the past, or a result of conquests by Vikings of savage lands (what the rest of us might call colonialism). Panofsky likens this to the responses from “many science opponents like climate deniers or anti-vaxxers, who are actually very informed about the science, even if they interpret and critique it in idiosyncratic and motivated ways".

Some white nationalists even looked at the GAT results and suggested that discussion of 100 per cent racial purity and the "one drop" rule might even be outdated – that it might be better to look for specific genetic markets that are “reliably European”, even though geneticists might call them by a different name.

Of course, in another not totally surprising development, many of the Stormfront commentators also insisted that GAT is part of a Jewish conspiracy, “to confuse whites by sprinkling false diversity into test results".

Many of the experts in the field have admitted to queasiness about the test themselves; both how they come to their results and what they imply. There are several technical issues with GAT, such as its use of contemporary populations to make inferences about those who previously lived in different places around the world, and concerns that the diversity of reference samples used to make inferences is not fully representative of the real world. 

There are other specific complications when it comes to the supramacist enthusiasm for GAT. Some already make a tortous argument that white people are the “true people of color" by dint of greater variation in hair and eye color. By breaking up DNA into percentages (e.g. 30 per cent Danish, 20 per cent German), Panofsky says GAT can provide a further opportunity to “appropriate and colonise the discourse of diversity and multiculturalism for their own purposes". There's is also, says Panofsky, the simple issue that “we can’t rely on genetic information to turn white nationalists away from their views."

“While I think it would be nice if the lesson people would take from GAT is that white nationalism is incoherent and wrong. I think white nationalists themselves often take the exact opposite conclusion."