We are used to the buffoons of Brexit sweeping basic economic realities aside. What seems new is the extent to which otherwise quite reasonable commentators are willing to go similarly evidence-freeby Lyndsey Stonebridge / October 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
It was obvious that debating free movement and border control after the referendum was never going to be a reasonable or dignified conversation. But there is something conspicuously unhinged about the tone of recent discussions about migration—and it appears to be catching.
We are used to the buffoons of Brexit sweeping basic economic realities aside in the delirious pursuit of some Cotswolds-Xanadu free trade fantasy. What seems new is the extent to which otherwise quite reasonable and imaginative commentators—including some from regions of the Labour Party that are not even purple, let alone blue—are willing to go similarly evidence-free when it comes to talking about freedom of movement.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many times economists like Jonathan Portes patiently explain that the evidence for migrants under-cutting wages and taking jobs is, at its very, very, best, inconclusive; apparently we must now make policy as though it did. In September, Portes’ colleagues from King’s College London also helpfully explained why staying in the supposedly oppressive single market, custom’s union, or even the EU, would, at the very, very, worst, have a negligible effect on all 26 of Labour’s economic plans, including re-nationalisation—to apparently little avail.
Like persuading a smart PPE student that no matter how great he is at politics and philosophy, he still needs to pass his first-year economics exam, it is proving hard to get the mundanely self-evident facts of economic and political reason to temper, let alone ground, the self-confidence of either Brexit- or Lexiteers.
To an extent, this is not a surprise. It is not a readily known reality that is at stake in these debates. What we’re really talking about when we talk about free movement is not economic practicality but Britain itself: its borders, people, moral life, and history. This is why so much political talk about free movement is resistant to reality testing: all the time we’re discussing the best and most reasonable approach to border-control, we’re also scrapping over what kind of national fantasy we think it would be nicest to collectively inhabit just now.
This aspect of the debate is not, of course, new, and a bit of history can tell us why playing fast and loose with facts and fantasies about migration is always about something far more profound, and sometimes far more deadly, than (as Brexit enthusiasts on both sides of the house would have us believe) tidying…