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10 January 2017

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

There are limits to the Cosmopolitan Ukip approach. 

By Sunder Katwala

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.

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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. 

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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.