Taking the long view of human history, one feature that stands out as a constant factor is migration. Wave after wave of migrating humans have swept across the surface of the globe and it is a truism to state that every country, every nation, every border owes something to migration in determining what they are and where they are. The two most widespread languages in use (English and Spanish) both started out in small corners of Europe and were spread around the world by a combination of conquest and the ensuing migration. There is something peculiar to me that, in a world largely shaped by migration, prevention of migration should have become such a significant political theme; it’s almost as though large sections of humanity have decided to forget how we became what we are and freeze history in aspic at its current point.
I saw an article a while ago in which Farage seemed to be arguing that it was wrong that citizens of EU states should have more right to come to the UK than citizens of Commonwealth countries. It’s one of the few things on which I almost agree with him. The problem arises, though, in the response to that inequality.
When two different groups of people have different levels of rights, there are always two obvious ways of resolving that inequality – you can either take rights away from one group or grant them to the other. And the general problem with people who highlight this particular difference is that they always seem to want to diminish rights rather than enhance them. It’s yet another case of the privileged few wanting to restrict freedom to themselves. It also highlights the key difference in ideological perspective between two different world views. It isn’t the simplistic one as which they present it, which is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them about controlling immigration is automatically in favour of mass immigration, it’s about where ‘rights’ start and end. And there are two fundamentally different starting points.
The first is that, in principle, every member of the human race should have the right to travel, live and work wherever he or she wishes, and that it up to anyone who wants to restrict those rights to justify doing so. The alternative starting point is that moving around is a privilege, not a right, and that governments should decide who can benefit from that privilege. It shouldn’t need to be said (but probably does) that ‘privileges’ always somehow end up being disproportionately available to those who are already privileged, whilst it is the poorest who find the ‘privilege’ denied them.
It’s perfectly possible, in principle at least, to end up with the same policies at a practical level when starting from either perspective, but the justifications will look very different. From the latter perspective, it is the individual humans who have to justify why they should be allowed to move; from the former, it is for governments to justify why movement should be prevented. It should be no surprise to anyone that a party like the Conservative Party, which believes in essence that ‘rights’ should be few and far between starts from the perspective that movement is a privilege not a right. They do, after all, seem to think that the same rule applies to health, education, and housing.
Superficially, it’s rather more of a surprise that Labour starts from the same perspective. Yet their rhetoric tells us exactly that; it’s almost identical to the Tories. There might be some difference of emphasis or in the rules governing exactly who and how many people should be allowed to migrate, but essentially, the party of self-styled “socialists” and “internationalists” is as strong in wanting to restrict movement as the Tories. It’s a factor which Theresa May was quite right to pick up on in her response to Corbyn’s letter, when she pointed out that Labour was as wedded to the abolition of freedom of movement as she is.
It’s only at a superficial level that Labour’s position should surprise us though. As with so much which that party says and does, principle long ago stopped being the driving force. They have adopted their current stance on migration not from principle, or because they think it’s right, or even because of any evidence relating to the economic costs and benefits; no, none of those drive Labour, only a cynical pursuit of votes. They think, in short, that it’s what the people who vote for them want. A party which set out to persuade, educate and lead people to a different and better form of society has become a political vehicle aimed at winning power by saying what they think people want to hear – a party which follows rather than leads.
It has been said that, in relation to Brexit, there are two things which both May and Corbyn want. They both want Brexit and they both want it to be delivered by the Tories. The reason we are in such a mess over Brexit isn’t just May’s red lines and utter incompetence (important though those factors are); it is also down to Labour’s cynicism and willingness to follow rather than lead. The ‘game’ has become, for them, more important than the outcome.