IN the last few months I’ve grown really weary of unthinking tribalism in Scottish politics. Like many SNP types, I started my political journey identifying most closely with the Labour Party. I never joined the party, as my time in Brussels and London that crystallised my view that Scotland could be better independent, but I still rejoiced at the 1997 election when Tony Blair’s Labour swept away the Tories. I joined the SNP the week after. It turns out 20 years is a long time in politics!
But I say all that to prove that I’m up for coalitions.
First published in The National, 2 August 2017
Working in the European Parliament I sit in a multi-party, multi-national group. I, and I think the regular folks in non-political Scotland, like to see politicians working together where we can. There’s an SNP/Labour coalition running Scotland’s capital city. But more to the point, Brexit is too big for the narcissism of small differences. Our minister, Michael Russell, has been smart to work so closely with the Welsh Labour government to find common cause on Brexit, against the UK Tories in London. I’m concerned that now, with the Labour Party at Westminster in turmoil, we are in danger of letting the Tories away with it because we can’t get ourselves organised in time.
And Labour’s turmoil centres on immigration. We need a serious debate about immigration and freedom of movement, into these islands. Note, they’re two different things. Immigration is when people come to live or work here, freedom of movement is the right we all have to go live, work, study, travel or retire across the whole of the EU, from the Algarve to the Arctic Circle. Freedom of movement may become immigration, but the two are different. And any limitation on freedom of movement inwards will be mirrored to the dot and comma against us. Although I disagree with plans to limit EU immigration, it is not said enough that what this means is that we all lose our rights and UK Labour is complicit in it.
And let me be really clear where I stand. Immigration has been great for Scotland’s society and economy. We’re a welcoming nation and we need more people. For too much of our history we exported our own people; the fact that folk want to come and make Scotland their home is a supreme compliment that things might be on the up. In the independence referendum we specifically made sure all EU nationals could vote, because our definition of Scottish is “do you live here?”.
EU citizens living in the UK contribute vastly more per head to the UK Exchequer (there aren’t figures for Scotland alone I’m happy quoting) than UK nationals – the figure is £55 per second, net! You can’t get off a plane and apply for a council house, nor apply for social security, yet there are some politicians who try to pretend that’s the case.
Anyway, it is not “unrestricted” nor “open door”. There are, within EU law, various restrictions on freedom of movement. Initially, it was only freedom of movement “for workers” and while there have been various changes to that over the years, that remains the basis of the freedom. Different member states incorporate freedom of movement differently, and those who would pretend it is unrestricted are trying to mislead, sadly, often successfully, and we need to draw the poison. Lies must not be appeased, but challenged. Which brings me to UK Labour Party.
The Labour Party has, over the years, given some really mixed signals on immigration. It was Tony Blair and Gordon Brown who adopted rules on freedom of movement after the enlargement of the EU in 2004 to have as open a system as possible, more so than other states. That was a good, smart thing, a smart thing, and has our economy in a better nick than it otherwise would be.
Yet it was Gordon Brown who barely 10 years later adopted the UKIP/BNP phrase “British jobs for British workers”, and now we have the leader of the Labour Party railing against “wholesale” immigration.
There is a need for an honest debate to be had about freedom of movement and immigration. There are reasons why so many folk are working harder for less, in more precarious jobs: Tory policy. That this has been scapegoated on to migrants is a scandal. How about those of us who can unite around that and hold the Tories to account? Brexit was, successfully, presented by the Leave campaign as the snake oil to cure all ills.
It is hardly surprising that some folk have concerns about immigration and voted to leave – the right-wing press tells us on a daily basis that we’re being “swamped”. But that means it is all the more important that we face down prejudice and inform the debate, not pander to the worst in people.
Come on Labour moderates – we’re relying on you.