‘Liberal’ leavers played with fire and now Britain gets burned

Published by the ipaper (10th October, 2016)

The day after Britain voted to leave the European Union, one of the key figures promoting the concept of “taking back control” went on Newsnight and revealed that he liked the idea of free movement of labour and hoped it could continue after Brexit. The admission, from Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, left the host Evan Davis visibly stunned. ‘We’ve just been through three months of agony on the issue of immigration,’ he spluttered. ‘Why didn’t you say this in the campaign? That’s completely at odds with what the public think they voted for.’

The BBC presenter was right. Whatever Hannan might have said on the stump, the Leave campaign deliberately focused on migration to counter warnings of economic doom from their opponents. Remember those calls for an Australian-style points system, which, we have since learnt, was dog-whistle politics designed to send a signal to white voters by reminding them of a nation viewed as largely white? And all that deceitful scaremongering over Turkey, a Muslim nation, joining the EU?

Now listen to some ‘liberal’ Brexiteers complaining they never sought harsher immigration controls after hostile measures against foreign workers were unveiled at last week’s Tory party conference. Theresa May has interpreted the Brexit vote as a demand for lower migration levels. Her response is to place restrictions on free movement over retention of free trade with moves towards a ‘hard Brexit’. As a negotiating strategy, she refuses to guarantee three million EU nationals living here can stay, provoking some to start heading home already – not surprising, when the plunging pound is hitting remittances.

This position is dispiriting and damaging to the nation’s future, undermining progressive moves May has announced in some other areas. Less than a decade ago a Labour Prime Minister was condemned from all sides for borrowing a phrase from the British National Party when he demanded ‘British jobs for British workers’; now this seems to be government policy after companies were warned they may be named and shamed for employing foreign staff. This repulsive idea underscores how the rise of populism has infected our national values. Once unpalatable policies have moved from the far-right fringe to mainstream politics.

Such concepts are rightly condemned by more liberal voices who pushed for Brexit. Steve Hilton, once David Cameron’s closest aide, made a savage attack in The Sunday Times, saying ministers might as well announce ‘foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms’. Andrew Lilico, the economist used by the Leavers to counter the many experts opposing Brexit, says they never sought ‘illiberal and anti-foreigner’ immigration policies when arguing for control of borders. Sympathetic commentators claim the likes of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove want an outward looking Britain. Hannan insists ministers misunderstand the motivation of Brexiteers.

This may all be true. Yet their pleading stinks of hypocrisy. These people played with fire and now the nation in whose name they profess to have fought is getting burned. They harnessed themselves to forces of fear and rode a wave of intolerance towards foreigners to achieve their aims. Yes, they offered a veneer of liberal optimism in the Brexit battle, but they were at the head of a pessimistic army of voters who blamed outsiders for the political and economic failures of Britain’s governing elites. If they believed breaking from Brussels would lead to a more outward-looking nation, they are guilty of breathtaking naivety.

Like some of these people, I want Britain to adopt a more open global stance. But it was obvious Brexit would lead to backlash against migrants and retreat from globalisation. The government is even suggesting more restrictions on foreign students, further shackling one of our most successful players in the international marketplace. Yet while fighting such regressive moves, never forget the real culprits to blame for this self-destructive spiral.

Among the most depressing aspects of the Tory conference was the breezy insouciance of key Brexiters that everything will work out, despite their inability to outline the shape of any deal, let alone a realistic timetable. When pressed, they offered pat responses implying those pesky foreigners would give mighty Britain a great deal protecting free trade while restricting free movement, regardless of their own interests. Typical was one minister who kept repeating we would get ‘the best possible deal’ before finally conceding there would be ‘some tariffs’ at the end of the process.

May’s announcement that she will trigger Article 50 by March gives Britain just 29 months to conclude complex trade negotiations, raising risk of rushed agreements. Any EU deal must be agreed with 27 other member states – and many require sign-off from parliaments, thereby increasing chances of political disruption. Westminster consensus seems to be that Britain will end up under World Trade Organisation arrangements for several years while finishing discussions, leading to the imposition of often-hefty tariffs on many goods. One Treasury source told me they estimate this will cut UK growth six per cent by 2030; it will also devastate many firms and disrupt many industries.

Some Tories who posed as national saviours to push Brexit are now fleeing the inevitable consequences of their actions. The only certainty we can draw from our shaky situation is that the future shape of our country is unclear, while the plummeting pound indicates lack of confidence in our actions. Britain seems set on a course that threatens further divisions, economic dislocation and electoral discontent. Yet those responsible are running from the scene of their stupidity, loudly protesting innocence after leading a victorious revolt fueled by intolerance. No wonder voters view politics with such contempt.

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