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A reluctant Remainer, the end of border controls and why it is healthy to sneer at toffs

First thoughts on the week's news, from sheepish Etonians to my EU referendum prediction.

Since I shall be abroad on referendum day, I have already cast my vote for Remain. I did so without enthusiasm. I agree with the Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins that “the EU is anti-working-class, anti-socialist and anti-democratic”. Moreover, many warnings about the supposed consequences of Brexit strike me as things to be welcomed rather than feared. A fall in asset values, particularly house prices, would hit the rich and give poorer and younger people a chance to acquire assets of their own. A run on sterling would help British exports. A decline in foreign investment would stop so many profits from British workers’ labours going overseas. A weaker City of London would help rebalance an economy that has become too dependent on the parasitic financial services industry.

However, a socialist Britain, nationalising vital industries, eradicating poverty and spending lavishly on the NHS, seems no more likely as an outcome of Brexit than the right’s vision of a buccaneering Britain sailing the high seas, 18th-century-style, to trade freely with distant lands. Whichever way the vote goes, big corporations and financial markets will continue to dictate most government policies. The most significant result of a Leave vote would be to strengthen the more reactionary, xenophobic forces in British society.


Falling Leaves

Whatever their uncertainties in other respects, opinion polls agree that support for Leave is strongest among older age groups while young people overwhelmingly support Remain. Since the old are more likely to vote this is usually described as an advantage for the Brexiteers. I think the opposite. The old tend to be risk-averse, particularly since many depend on fixed incomes from pensions and other assets. It is a peculiar reversal that they want to follow a course that involves so much uncertainty, while their grandchildren urge them not to be so reckless. Yet many may not yet have paid much attention to the issues. I suspect they will switch in the final week of the campaign and that Leave’s support is much softer than anyone thinks.

Barring events such as a big terrorist attack – which could create a national mood for closing the borders and turning our backs on the world – I expect a comfortable victory for Remain, perhaps by as much as 62-38.


Through the net

Talking of borders, I hope, once the referendum is over, to hear less of the demand that “we must take control”. The phrase would have been meaningless in pre-1914 Europe where hardly anybody owned a passport, mainly because the growth of railway travel was thought to make borders impossible to control.  Today, with international travel infinitely easier and millions moving around daily for business or pleasure, the only countries that enjoy anything resembling complete control of their borders are Australia, which nobody can easily get to, and North Korea, which nobody wants to go to.

The US has 11.4 million illegal immigrants, many of whom endured a five-day march across the Sonoran Desert from Mexico to get there. No doubt they would find a way over, round or through Donald Trump’s wall. In the Mediterranean, we see every day the hazardous journeys desperate people will make to reach western Europe. Of the UK’s 330,000 net inward migration, only a little over half is attributable to the EU. Non-EU migration alone easily exceeded the 100,000 that David Cameron promised – “no ifs, no buts” – as an overall limit.

If employers have jobs and migrants want to work, they will find their way to each other. The only means of cutting UK inward migration is to induce a long and deep recession. Which, according to some economists, is exactly what Brexit would do.


Sheepish Etonians

It is not just Brexit that divides the Tories. In the Times a few days ago, Matthew Parris, a former Tory MP and aide to Margaret Thatcher, wrote: “sneering at public school toffs is healthy. . . People must be made to feel sheepish about going to Eton or Harrow.” He welcomed government proposals that civil-service recruiters and big employers should distinguish potential from polish by asking job applicants about their socio-economic and educational backgrounds. Then Lord Waldegrave, the provost (chair of the governors) of Eton, threatened to resign from the Conservative Party. Children, he argued, should not be punished for their parents’ decisions nor jobs filled “not on the basis of merit but of social engineering”.

Waldegrave, educated at Eton and Oxford, was certainly not punished for his parents’ decisions, nor for those of his ancestors, of whom one received the Chewton estate in Somerset from Mary I and another got an earldom from George II, both no doubt entirely on merit. Also on merit, I am sure, Waldegrave became a Foreign Office minister under Thatcher and, despite sending 38 letters to MPs telling them that a boycott on selling arms to Iraq still stood when he had just relaxed it, survived to join the cabinet. After the electors of Bristol West dismissed him in 1997 (perhaps they were trying a little social engineering), he got a life peerage, his elder brother having inherited the family earldom. In his memoirs, he recalled gazing at the common people from his ministerial car and thinking they must lead “shadowy, dull” lives compared to his own. And he was supposed to be a wet Tory.


Britain loves an understudy

We went to see Funny Girl at the Savoy Theatre in central London where the star was advertised as Sheridan Smith, given an OBE last year for services to drama. In her much publicised and controversial absence from “stress and exhaustion”, her part was taken by her understudy, Natasha Barnes, who got a tumultuous standing ovation; far more ecstatic, I imagine, than anything Smith ever got. Barnes was good but not that good. Nor was the show. But the British love understudies, perhaps because they think they are close relations of underdogs. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, How men got left behind

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.