Brexit and the east European elephant

Art installation: Banksy | Photo: Damian Dovarganese/AP

Rolling post, begun April 2016

Last updated December 2018 | Contents

In which I – as a Remain voter who thinks the Leave vote should be respected – detail the arrogant dismissal by the metrocentric liberal elite of the concerns of white working class Leave voters about unrestricted mass immigration from poor east European countries as ignorant, provincial racism.

Guardian letters: May 2017, June 2017 and July 2017 (Chris Hughes)

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April 2016 | Introduction
May 2016 | Entered the elephant
May 2016 | Labour’s ‘horrible racist’ row
23 June 2016 | Referendum result
October 2016 | Post-result toxicity
October 2016 | May tackled immigration – accused of xenophobia
December 2016 | By-election blues for Labour
December 2016 | Labour Welsh leader: London-centric view of immigration could lose votes
December 2016 | Top Labour MP: immigration class divide – shadow home secretary: wrong
January 2017 | Ukip’s post-Farage farrago of fiascos disadvantaged the dispossessed
January 2017 | Corbyn waffled about free movement
March 2017 | Shadow home secretary: Labour must defend free movement
April 2017 | May called snap general election
April 2017 | Starmer: Labour would end free movement
June 2017 | Labour manifesto: free movement to end
June 2017 | May lost majority
July 2017 | Labour weaved this way and that
July 2017 | Tory cabinet’s free movement squabble
August 2017 | Labour remoaners: defend free movement
August 2017 | Tories got it together, sort of
August 2017 | Labour went soft again
September 2017 | Kofi Annan stuck his oar in
September 2017 | Labour remoaners organised to defend free movement
September 2017 | Corbyn: free movement to end
September 2017 | Government U-turn
September 2017 | Labour stayed in one piece
October 2017 | Conservatives swerved back to Brexit
October 2017 | Tory minister’s ‘tantrum’ smear
March 2018 | May surrendered to Barnier
March 2018 | Labour’s position: no one knew
May 2018 | Tories planned free movement lite
June 2018 | Tory minister backed free movement
July 2018 | Chequers white paper: free movement to end
September 2018 | Abbott immigration speech: nothing on free movement
September 2018 | Belfast legal report: the Irish back door
September 2018 | Migration report: ‘End free movement’
November 2018 | Draft withdrawal agreement – free movement to continue during transition
November 2018 | Draft political declaration: free movement to end – draft documents approved by EU
December 2018 | Plan B touted: ‘Norway plus’ (includes free movement)

Footnote 1 | A brief history of the UK’s brutal colonisation of Ireland, and its troubled aftermath


East European rough sleepers in London | Photo: Jeremy Selwyn/Evening Standard

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April 2016


Disturbing reports about the high number of rough sleepers in London could be seen to have made a good case for the UK leaving the European Union.

Most of the rough sleepers were from eastern Europe. Some were working but unable to afford accommodation and not yet eligible for government support. Many were not working. The police were having to deal with complaints of antisocial behaviour.

In the UK in 2016 we were facing a referendum on membership of the EU.

Conservative prime minister David Cameron had been forced by Eurosceptics in his party and by Conservative MPs worried about their seats being threatened by the rise of the populist anti-EU party, Ukip, to put the referendum in his manifesto for the 2015 general election.

After his lacklustre Conservative-Liberal coalition term of government, Cameron had expected to lose the election. When he unexpectedly won (with the unpolled votes of ‘shy’ Conservatives), he tried to avert the referendum by negotiating better terms for the UK with the EU.

Cameron’s negotiations, typically lacklustre, failed. The referendum, which Cameron had never wanted and had never expected to have to implement, was arranged to take place in June 2016.

As a middle-class left-liberal-Green, I had mixed feelings about the EU. I loved the noble internationalist free-trade idea, but disliked the corrupt neo-liberal bureaucratic gravy-train reality.

In my local cafe, here in the UK’s east midlands, I heard the views of two older working class white women about the recent unrestricted mass immigration to the UK from poor east European countries that had been allowed under the EU freedom of movement rule.

They were reluctant to say so, aware that their views might be considered ‘wrong’, but they deeply resented this change, imposed with no consultation. Their quiet, genuine and non-racist strength of feeling made a big impression on me.

What did the UK think would happen when they gave EU freedom of movement to poor east European member countries? Why didn’t the UK restrict access until those countries’ economies had risen to western levels – like Germany did (and still does)?

East European immigrants who weren’t sleeping rough in London were gathering in ghettos elsewhere, mostly working and paying tax, but seen as lowering wages, and putting stress on services such as schools and hospitals.

This was breeding resentment amongst the indigenous white working class, whose traditional Labour votes were being lost to the anti-EU right-wing populist Ukip party.

The UK’s EU referendum debate in the media was all about trade and jobs, but the elephant in the room was east European immigration.

People were reluctant to say what they thought about it for fear of being thought racist (or – just as bad, in some circles – politically incorrect). Of course, there probably was racism at play here. (See my analysis of racism, Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct)

In any case, the referendum would be a secret vote!

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May 2016

Entered the elephant

With the referendum date in sight, east European immigration was in the news, as figures for EU immigrants were hotly disputed.

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May 2016

Labour’s ‘horrible racist’ row

(The Guardian print newspaper didn’t report this, despite a full report on the Guardian website.)

Labour shadow Europe minister Pat Glass had been pre-referendum door-knocking in Sawley, Derbyshire with a BBC local radio reporter. Thinking that she was off-mic*, she said: ‘The very first person I come to is a horrible racist. I’m never coming back to wherever this is.’

The BBC said the man she was referring to later denied being a racist, but said that in his conversation with the MP he’d spoken about a Polish family in the area who he thought were living on benefits, and whom he’d described as ‘spongers’.

Glass’s lazy, right-on metrocentric view showed how she and her bien-pensant political class have ignored – and belittled – the genuine concerns of the white working class about east European immigration. Labour, with its unconvincing Remain campaign, ignored those concerns at the risk of losing support.

Glass later issued a grovelling apology, saying:

‘The comments I made were inappropriate and I regret them. Concerns about immigration are entirely valid and it’s important that politicians engage with them. I apologise to the people living in Sawley for any offence I have caused.’

(Glass was promoted to shadow education minister in June 2016, but resigned two days later. She stood down at the 2017 general election, citing the ‘bruising referendum‘ as a major cause. It’s unfortunate that rising-star Glass tripped over that ‘bruising’ reality. Had she – and her party – been more aware of the genuine concern about EU mass immigration amongst their voters, Glass might still be an MP.)

(* Another off-mic racism-related post-interview comment is described in my blogpost about Aung Sun Suu Kyi and Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims, ‘Halo Goodbye, Suu – the Rohingya crisis‘. Suu Kyi made a racist off-air comment about BBC Today presenter Mishal Husain after losing her temper during a radio interview when Husain repeatedly asked her to condemn anti-Muslim violence. After the interview, she was heard to say: ‘No one told me I was going to be interviewed by a Muslim.’)

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23 June 2016

Referendum result

Metrocentral London: Remain
Most of the rest of country: Leave
(Me: Undecided, but voted Remain)

Several polls confirmed that immigration was a main reason for voting Leave:

  • An Ipsos MORI poll taken just before the referendum showed that immigration was seen as the biggest issue (48%) that would influence people’s vote. (The economy scored 27%.)
  • A Lord Ascroft post-referendum poll found that 33% of Leave voters said the main reason was that leaving offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders. (Immigration was second. The highest scoring reason was sovereignty, at 40%.)
  • A July 2016 Economist analysis concluded that high numbers of migrants didn’t bother Britons, but high rates of change did.
  • An April 2018 CSI poll found that 40% of leave voters gave immigration as the main reason.

After the referendum, David Cameron resigned as PM and was replaced by Theresa May, who’d campaigned to remain in the EU, but promised to implement the leave result.

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October 2016

Post-result toxicity

The post-referendum ‘toxic’ debate inflated as metrocentric Remain intellectuals whined stridently about the supposedly stupid people who’d ignored their advice. The poor whites, they said, were like Trump supporters, incoherently attacking the establishment like, they implied, a zombie mob shuffling out of their northern housing estates towards the ivory towers of metroland.

Those metrocentrics were really the stupid ones. They couldn’t accept the truth: that Leave voters had valid concerns about the impact on the UK of EU freedom of movement; and about loss of sovereignty. Being treated with contempt by the political class didn’t help – but their vote wasn’t an semi-coherent act of resentment at being overlooked. It was about issues – issues that the metrocentrics, in their lofty arrogance, chose to ignore.

An April 2018 CSI poll asked Leave voters to rank four reasons for voting Leave. The poll report said:

‘Interestingly, “To teach British politicians a lesson” had by far the lowest average rank, being ranked last by a full 88% of Leave voters. This contradicts the widespread claim that Brexit was a “protest vote”: i.e., that people voted Leave as a way of venting deep-seated grievances.’

(Immigration was the main reason, ranked first of the four reasons by 40% of Leave voters polled.)

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October 2016

PM May tackled immigration – accused of xenophobia

At the post-Brexit conference for the UK Conservative party, new prime minister Theresa May (who had supported the Remain campaign, but had promised to implement Brexit) bravely confronted the metrocentric sneerers.

Pledging to crack down on immigration, May said that some people don’t like to admit that British workers can be out of work or on low wages because of low-skilled immigration.

Predictably, leading metrocentrics lashed back. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that May was fanning the flames of xenophobia and hatred. SNP leader and Scottish assembly first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that May’s speech was the most disgraceful display of reactionary rightwing politics in living memory.

Admittedly, May had form. In her previous post as home affairs minister she implemented a Gradgrind approach to reducing immigration. She set ambitious targets which she then failed to meet. An excellent November 2018 Irish Times article links that policy to her post-referendum determination to end free movement.

In 2010, home secretary May promised to cut net immigration. Instead it rose significantly. In 2012, she pledged to create ‘a really hostile environment for illegal migrants‘ and wrongly blamed the Human Rights Act for being unable to go further, earning a rebuke from senior judiciary. She ignored warnings about passport backlogs and chaos at border posts, and put ads on the side of lorries telling people to ‘Go home or face arrest‘. The ads were banned for inaccuracy – very few people could actually be arrested – and because of general public revulsion.

It was May’s incompetent and target-led ‘hostile environment’ that led to the shameful cruelty of the Windrush scandal.

So metrocentrics Corbyn and Sturgess arguably had reason to criticise May’s stance on immigration. However, they pointedly failed to acknowledge that this time, May was also voicing the feelings of Leave voters – many of whom were not Conservative voters – who weren’t necessarily xenophobic, but were genuinely concerned about having mass immigration imposed on them.

(If those influential metrocentrics stopped defending their moral high ground, got off their high horses, and got down to thinking about improving society, they might consider that the problems and concerns experienced by the increasingly large precariat underclass could be resolved by paying all adult citizens an unconditional state income. This would, of course, require effective border control – which we could now have. See my post, Robots could mean leisure.)

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December 2016

By-election blues for Labour

The chickens came home to roost at a by-election in deep-Brexit Lincolnshire. Having previously come second in this safe Conservative seat, Labour trailed fourth – behind Ukip.

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December 2016

Labour Welsh leader: London-centric view of immigration could lose votes

Welsh assembly first minister Carwyn Jones, the most powerful Labour politician in government, disagreed with the position of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, who’d defended freedom of movement.

In a Guardian article, Jones said:

‘The danger is that’s a very London-centric position. That is not the way people see it outside London. London is very different: it is a cosmopolitan city and has high levels of immigration. It has that history. It is not the way many other parts of the UK are.

‘People see it very differently in Labour-supporting areas of the north of England, for example. We have to be very careful that we don’t drive our supporters into the arms of Ukip. When I was on the doorstep in June, a lot of people said: ‘We’re voting out, Mr Jones, but, don’t worry, we’re still Labour.’ What I don’t want is for those people to jump to voting Ukip.’

Exactly. (Except they already were.)

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December 2016

Top Labour MP: immigration class divide – shadow home secretary: wrong

Labour cracks widened on the tricky subject of immigration. Leader Jeremy Corbyn continued to downplay the issue (even as Labour voters continued to drift towards Ukip), but some senior Labour politicians focussed on it.

This included northern Labour MP and political big beast Andy Burnham, former shadow home secretary and the then front-runner for the post of elected mayor – which he subsequently won – of northwest UK region Greater Manchester. Burnham joined Carwyn Jones (see above) in speaking up on the subject.

Writing in the Guardian, Burnham said that Labour’s collective failure to tackle concerns over jobs, wages, housing and education linked to migration contributed to the loss of the referendum.

Burnham spoke of a ‘growing class divide‘, with middle-class Labour Remain voters looking down on those who voted Leave as ‘uneducated or xenophobic‘.

(Thats what I said.)

Stubbornly metrocentric Labour shadow home secretary and close Corbyn ally Diane Abbott then said that Burnham had got it back to front, and was wrong.

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January 2017

Ukip’s post-Farage farrago of fiascos disadvantaged the dispossessed

The only good thing, from Labour’s point of view, was that Ukip, the party most likely to benefit from Labour’s metrocentric stance, was disintegrating following the resignation of leader Nigel Farage (the man the metrocentrics – with some reason – loved to hate).

However, this was a bad thing from the point of view of the dispossessed underclass. Ukip, under Farage’s effective leadership, boosted the Conservative Eurosceptic pressure that forced then prime minister David Cameron to promise the referendum. An effective Ukip could have maintained the necessary pressure to ensure that the intentions of Leave voters were honoured.

Prime minister May seemed to mean well, but without the pressure that an effective Ukip could have provided, she might have followed Cameron into the Brexit bin, and the metrocentric remoaners would then be free to dilute and delay the process – until only a dog’s dinner was left.

However, May held firm. In January 2017 she announced that Britain would leave the single market (the subject of much anguished hand-wringing amongst remoaners) in order to control and strengthen sovereignty. Good for her.

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January 2017

Corbyn waffled about free movement

In a major Brexit speech, UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn further toned down his already weak statement that Labour was ‘not wedded’ to free movement by adding that it hadn’t been ruled out.

According to an extract handed out the night before the speech – in Leave-voting Peterborough – Corbyn was due to say that he supported ‘reasonable management‘ of immigration after Brexit. That sounded like something that would happen after the end of free movement (ie, the end of unmanaged immigration). Corbyn was also due to say: ‘Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle.’

That was weak and weaselly. ‘Not wedded to the principle’? (Who wrote that?) Corbyn could just have said that Labour’s position was that free movement would end.

Nevertheless, some thought this was a change of policy by Corbyn, who’d been under pressure from Labour MPs to address the concerns of Labour supporters and swing voters who’d voted Leave.

However, in a round of interviews before the speech Corbyn insisted ‘it’s not a sea change at all’ – and complained that his planned statement had been misinterpreted.

In the actual speech, after acknowledging that many people had expressed deep concern about unregulated migration from the EU, Corbyn said:

Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.‘ [Labour Party’s punctuation]

Corbyn went on to say that EU immigration should be part of the negotiated attempt to keep full access to the EU single market.

Right. That was clear, then. As everyone knew by then, full access to the single market would mean accepting – as non-EU Norway does – EU free movement of people.

So, no misinterpretation possible after that gem of clarity, Jeremy.

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March 2017

Shadow home secretary: Labour must defend free movement

Adding to the confusion, the opposition party’s home afairs minister called for free movement to be defended, in apparent contradiction to her party leader’s apparent position (see above).

In a widely publicised foreword to a book of essays, Free Movement and Beyond – Agenda Setting for Brexit Britain, Labour’s stubbornly metrocentric shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, said that freedom of movement was a workers’ right.

In her foreword, Abbott described criticism of EU free movement as reactionary and anti-immigrant. She said that the labour movement couldn’t accept the attack on freedom of movement, and must stand to defend it.

Abbott, whose parents were Jamaican immigrants, clearly cares deeply about historical and recent injustices suffered by immigrants, but she showed no understanding of the concerns of Leave voters about unrestricted immigration from poor east European countries under EU freedom of movement.

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April 2017

May called snap general election

UK prime minister Theresa May was on course for a sensible Brexit, having cruised past various Remoan obstacles, when she unexpectedly called a snap general election.

She said it was needed to ensure a smooth Brexit, but probably the real reason was that she wanted to take advantage of her party’s big polling lead before the economy – heading for higher inflation and depressed wages – tanked.

Ukip, having achieved Brexit, seemed to have vanished up its own arse, so disposessed former Labour voters who wanted control over immigration would have to vote – Conservative!

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April 2017

Starmer: Labour would end free movement

The UK opposition party said they’d accept the referendum result, and would end free movement. That’s big of them.

Labour shadow Brexit minister Sir Keir Starmer (human rights lawyer, London MP and arch-remoaner) said (presumably through gritted teeth) that Labour would seek to end free movement. He added that Labour wouldn’t shut the door on the single market, the customs union or participation in EU agencies.

Despite Starmer’s controversial rider, that was clearer than his leader’s mystical miasma of a pronouncement in January.

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June 2017

Labour manifesto: free movement to end

The snap general election called by UK premier Theresa May had the benefit of clarifying the opposition Labour party’s position on free movement.

The 2017 Labour manifesto, in chapter 2, Negotiating Bexit, under the heading of Immigration, said:

Freedom of movement will end when we leave the European Union.’

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June 2017

May lost majority

UK premier Theresa May won her snap general election, but unexpectedly lost her parliamentary majority. (Her general election campaign was rubbish, and Labour’s under Jeremy Corbyn was good.)

The Conservatives won the most seats in parliament, and May managed to get the support of the northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to give her a tiny majority. The DUP wanted a ‘soft’ Brexit (including a ‘soft’ land border with EU member the Republic of Ireland). May would also need the parliamentary support of every Tory member, including the many EU remoaners.

With Brexit negotiations due to begin very soon, May’s pre-election ‘hard’ Brexit plan to leave the EU single market and exclude the UK from EU was likely to be abandoned.

White working class concerns about mass EU immigration were once again in danger of being ignored.

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July 2017

Labour weaved this way and that

Jeremy Corbyn, still leader of the Labour Party after his unexpectedly good performance in the general election, surprisingly announced that Labour would leave the EU single market.

This was a change from his previous statement that Labour would push to maintain full access to the single market.

Metrocentric remoaners who wanted the UK to stay in the single market – or who simply wanted to derail Brexit – dominated the vocal section of the party. Perhaps Corbyn was thinking of the silent traditional Labour voters who voted Leave because of their concerns about recent mass immigration. If so, good for him.

Maverick Labour shadow trade minister Barry Gardiner, a remainer in the referendum, but who thought that the result must be honoured (like me!), then wrote a Guardian article backing Corbyn and explaining why: people voted Leave because they wanted UK borders controlled. Hallelujah.

However, Labour metrocentric remoaner MP Heidi Alexander in a article said that Gardiner’s position was wrong, depressing and disingenuous. Alexander’s views were then reported by the remoaning Guardian in the print edition as ‘news‘.

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July 2017

Tory cabinet’s free movement squabble

After UK premier Theresa May’s disastrous snap election, her power had weakened. While she was on holiday, having left no deputy in charge, her ministers were squabbling about Brexit – and about free movement.

Finance minister and arch-remainer Philip Hammond said there should be no immediate change to immigration rules when Britain left the EU.

Trade minister and Brexiter Liam Fox said that allowing free movement after Brexit would not keep faith with the referendum result. He said that the government had not agreed on whether to keep free movement for a transitional period.

A spokesman for May then stepped in to say that free movement would end in March 2019.

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August 2017

Labour remoaners: defend free movement

A Guardian report said that Labour remainer MPs had written an open letter calling for Labour to defend free movement. The report said that although Labour’s official position was that free movement would end at the point of Brexit in March 2019, Corbyn had always supported free movement. Oh dear.

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August 2017

Tories got it together, sort of

After the June general election, weakened prime minister Theresa May couldn’t purge her cabinet as she’d planned. Finance minister and arch-remoaner Philip Hammond escaped the chop – and had been making trouble.

However, all was now sweetness and light – Hammond collaborated with trade minister and arch-Brexiter Liam Fox to write a newspaper article meant to mend fences.

There’d been much discussion about a ‘transitional period’ after Brexit, with some remoaners suggesting a minimum five-year period, during which free movement would continue.

In their joint article, Beavis and Buthead announced a time-limited transition period. They also made it clear that after Brexit in 2019, the UK wouldn’t be in the single market or the customs union.

Needless to say, liberal remoaners objected to this sensible announcement. However, May’s ‘hard’ Brexit – amazingly – seemed to be back on track.

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August 2017

Labour went soft again

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn swerved dramatically to the metrocentric remoaner ‘soft’ Brexit side when he allowed his shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer – a London MP and human rights lawyer – to announce that Labour wanted a two-to-four-year transition period after Brexit, during which the UK would fully participate in the EU single market and customs union.

This was the same Jeremy Corbyn who one month ago (see above) announced that Labour would leave the single market after Brexit.

Participation in the single market would mean accepting free movement. In April 2017, Karmer said that Labour would end free movement, but Labour’s new policy would mean up to four years more of free movement after Brexit – possibly until 2023.

With Ukip in shreds, many Labour Leave voters who wanted to end free movement would probably now vote Conservative in the next general election, due in 2022.

Presumably, Corbyn – MP since 1983 for Islington North in the trendy north London heartland of metrocentricity – was happy to abandon those traditional Labour voters in the Midlands and the North.

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September 2017

Kofi Annan stuck his oar in

Influential Nobel Peace Prize winner and former UN secretary general Kofi Annan (on a flying visit from his Swiss HQ to northern UK city Hull to give a lecture) said in an interview with UK metrocentric national newspaper the Guardian that the UK should continue EU freedom of movement after Brexit.

Waffling meaninglessly about ‘choice‘, the formerly great man exposed his woefully inadequate understanding of the referendum result.

Annan needed to look at his own recent choice: to head a toothless commission of enquiry into Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims. The commission produced a report full of good advice which was effectively shelved by the Myanmar government. It was clearly a cynical attempt to deflect international criticism from formerly saintly fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner and now badly compromised Myanmar government head Aung San Suu Kyi.

(See my rolling blogpost on that subject, Halo Goodby, Suu – the Rohingya crisis.)

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September 2017

Labour remoaners organised to defend free movement

A campaign for free movement by a group of pro-EU Labour MPs and activists was planning to reinforce Labour’s recent swerve to a soft Brexit. The campaigners had drafted a resolution for the Labour conference, backing the continuation of free movement. They were encouraging local Labour parties to support the resolution.

An article backing the campaign on centre-left website LabourList by prominent Labour leftie Hugh Lanning apparently committed the campaign to free movement from everywhere – not just from the EU!

Left-wing website Left Futures (edited by Momentum founder Jon Lansman) ran a piece by teacher and writer David Pavett effectively demolishing the weird logic of Lanning’s article and the free movement campaign.

The main campaign backers were:

They all have a personal stake in free movement. Lewis’s father emigrated to the UK from Grenada. Lammy’s parents emigrated from Guyana. Siddiq spent most of her childhood in Bangladesh. (Controversial Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed is Siddiq’s aunt.) Cortes moved to the UK from British overseas territory Gibraltar to undertake further and higher education and forge his career.

Fair enough. However, they apparently have no understanding of the concerns of poor working class traditional Labour voters about the unrestricted immigration of even poorer east Europeans.

As Lewis has mixed heritage, Siddiq is South Asian and Lammy is black, they’ll have experienced personal and institutional racism, and will be sensitive to the element of racism in white Labour voters’ opposition to free movement.

However, they should respect those people’s very real non-racist concerns and anxieties about free movement – concerns which made them vote Leave.

In 2016 Lewis said:

‘…free movement of labour hasn’t worked for a lot of people. It hasn’t worked for many of the people in this country, where they’ve been undercut, who feel insecure’.

Lewis’s solution was for employers who bring in EU workers to be obliged to negotiate with a trade union to ensure that wages of local workers aren’t undercut. But he’d apparently abandoned his support for the insecure precariat in favour of blanket metrocentric remoaner obstructionism.

The Labour Party, having survived the Corbyn crisis, may well fall apart over this issue, as both sides of the free movement divide dig in.

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September 2017

Corbyn: free movement to end

The UK opposition leader clearly stated for the first time that free movement would end on leaving the EU.

In January 2017, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, somewhat cryptically, that Labour wasn’t wedded to free movement but it hadn’t been ruled out.

Then in April 2017, shadow Brexit minister Sir Keir Starmer said, more clearly, that free movement would end.

Finally, at the September 2017 annual UK trade union conference, Corbyn spat it out, saying:

‘When we leave the EU, the current free movement rules will end.’

There – that wasn’t so bad, was it, Jeremy?

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September 2017

Government U-turn

In a speech in Florence, Italy, UK Conservative prime minister Theresa May turned around on her promise to end free movement when the UK leaves the EU.

In July 2017, May said that free movement would end in March 2019, the scheduled date for Brexit.

However in her Florence speech, she now said that free movement would continue for two years after March 2019 (albeit subject to a Belgian-style registration process).

May, weakened by her disastrous snap election, was either pandering to Conservative remoaners led by finance minister Philip Hammond, or surrendering to unelected EU negotiator Michel Barnier. Or both.

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September 2017

Labour stayed in one piece

The Labour party avoided tearing itself apart over free movement at its annual conference (see above) – by avoiding the subject!

The powerful Corbyn-backing Momentum movement managed to block any debate about Brexit. They apparently thought it would be used to attack their man.

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October 2017

Conservatives swerved back to Brexit

In her recent Florence speech, Conservative UK premier Theresa May said that free movement would continue for at least two years after Brexit in March 2019. (See above.)

However, in a speech at the Conservative annual conference, immigration minister Brandon Lewis (a Remainer) said that freedom of movement for EU migrants would end in March 2019.

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October 2017

Tory minister’s ‘tantrum’ smear

Conservative Europe minister and prominent remoaner Alan Duncan insulted Leave voters in a speech in Chicago by saying that the Leave result was caused by campaigners inciting prejudice about immigration. Duncan said that Leave voters ‘were stirred up by an image of immigration, which made them angry and throw a bit of a tantrum‘.

Multi-millionaire Duncan (who was reprimanded by the House of Commons fees office for claiming more than £4,000 over three years in expenses for gardening, including £600 to maintain his ride-on lawnmower) is MP for Leave-voting Rutland and Melton. He might have some explaining to do to his constituents.

Some Leave campaigners may have tried to stir up anti-immigrant prejudice. But most Leave voters weren’t prejudiced and weren’t so stupid that they could be manipulated by bigots.

They had real concerns about unrestricted migration from poor east European countries.

Before unexpectedly switching to the Remain side in March 2016, Duncan tried to join the Vote Leave campaign after saying he’d ‘spent 40 years wishing we had never joined the EU’ since voting against membership in the last referendum in 1975.

Before switching, Duncan had said that the question of immigration was ‘far more complicated than many have admitted’. Now that he’s a remoaner, things are much simpler.

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March 2018

May surrendered to Barnier

In her September 2017 speech in Florence, UK premier Theresa May said that free movement would continue for at least two years during the transition period after Brexit in March 2019. (See above.) Then in October, immigration minister Brandon Lewis said that freedom of movement would end in March 2019. (See above.)

In her Mansion House speech on 2 March 2018, May confirmed this, saying:

‘We are clear that as we leave the EU, free movement of people will come to an end and we will control the number of people who come to live in our country.’

Then, on 19 March 2018, a draft withdrawal agreement negotiated with unelected EU panjandrum Michel Barnier (and due to be rubber-stamped by the mostly sheep-like 27 member states) said that free movement would continue during the transition period until December 2020.

So once again, Precariat leave voters have been overlooked and ignored.

Apparently, the continuation of EU rules including free movement was a quid pro quo for allowing us to negotiate trade agreements during transition. That’s kind of them.

(In any case, do we need trade ‘agreements’? Why don’t we just trade? Did the Phoenicians need trade agreements?)

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March 2018

Labour’s position: no one knew

Meanwhile, did anyone know what the view was of the UK opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn on free movement?

Debate on the issue at Labour’s annual conference last year was smothered by the powerful Corbyn-backing Momentum movement to prevent it being used used to attack their man. (See above.)

Corbyn said in September 2017:

‘When we leave the EU, the current free movement rules will end. Labour wants to see fair rules and management of migration…’

Then in December 2017 shadow Brexit minister Keir Starmer, Labour’s chief remoaner, said that Labour would accept the ‘easy movement‘ of workers in order to secure the benefits of the single market and customs union, and that Labour was seeking a ‘Norway-style agreement for the 21st century‘.

How modern! However, Norway’s agreement with the EU involves acceptance of free movement.

Then in January 2018, Starmer said that the Labour leadership were unanimous that the UK would leave the customs union but would then negotiate a treaty that would ‘do the work of the customs union’.

Having a customs union implies acceptance of free movement of labour.

As a blog writer, I asked Labour’s press office to clarify Labour’s position on free movement. I mentioned this post. They said my query had been forwarded to the office of Diane Abbott – the stubbornly metrocentric shadow home secretary. I had no reply.

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May 2018

Tories planned free movement lite

It was reported that the UK Conservative government planned to offer the EU a post-Brexit immigration plan very similar to current free movement rules. The plan would see a high level of access to the UK for EU citizens in the future, but would leave the UK government power to halt it in certain circumstances.

A government insider said that civil servants had been looking at how to give the UK/EU talks some momentum, and dealing with this issue was a way to do it.

However, a government spokesperson said news of the offer wasn’t true, and went on to say: ‘People voted in the referendum to retake control of our borders, and that is the basis we are negotiating on. After we leave the EU, freedom of movement will end and we will be creating an immigration system that delivers control over who comes to the UK, but that welcomes the brightest and best who want to work hard and contribute.’

Hmmm. This is a clash between Brexit minister David Davis and Olly Robbins, Brexit advisor to prime minister Theresa May. Leaver Davis resents being undermined by a remoaner civil servant. May has form for relying on dodgy advice – as in her disastrous 2017 snap election.

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June 2018

Tory minister backed free movement

UK Conservative business minister Greg Clark has warned prime minister Theresa May that restricting the access of EU workers into the UK after Brexit could be as damaging as a hard trade border. He said firms’ fears that a tougher approach to immigration from Europe would affect their operations were being heard ‘loud and clear’ by his department.

Economist Clark’s concern is apparently about UK service industry workers needing to move freely to work in the EU. The UK service industry is worth 80% of UK gross domestic product.

In order to get those UK service workers into Europe, Clark seems willing to accept continuation of EU freedom of movement as a quid pro quo. No doubt that would please other industries that have come to rely on cheap imported labour.

Northener Clark, son of a milkman, can’t be accused of ingrained metrocentric elitism. Clark added that not enough time had been spent talking about the movement of people compared to that of goods, following Britain’s exit. That’s true. However, in calling for continued free movement of labour, like Labour’s Starmer he’s arrogantly disregarding the genuine concerns about mass EU immigration that underpinned the referendum result.

May had said that free movement would end. (See above.) Clark needed to get back in his box.

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July 2018

Chequers white paper: free movement to end

Following a crunch cabinet meeting at Chequers (during which ministers were required to hand in their mobile phones) Theresa May’s Conservative UK government issued a white paper on Brexit.

The Chequers white paper, under the heading of ‘Immigration’, welcomed the contribution that migrants bring to our economy and society, and went on to say:

‘5.3 However, in the last decade or so, we have seen record levels of long term net migration in the UK, and that sheer volume has given rise to public concern about pressure on public services, like schools and our infrastructure, especially housing, as well as placing downward pressure on wages for people on the lowest incomes. The public must have confidence in our ability to control immigration. It is simply not possible to control immigration overall when there is unlimited free movement of people to the UK from the EU.

‘5.4 We will design our immigration system to ensure that we are able to control the numbers of people who come here from the EU. In future, therefore, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply and the migration of EU nationals will be subject to UK law.’

Some aspects of the Chequers agreement upset some cabinet Brexiteers. Political big beast and foreign affairs minister Boris Johnson, and Brexit minister David Davis both resigned.

This was a victory for unelected advisor Olly Robbins. (See above.) Robbins – paid more than the PM – was the key adviser behind the Chequers strategy which led to the resignations of Davis and Johnson. Davis had been working on his own strategy white paper, only to discover that May and Robbins had sidelined him.

Needless to say, remoaners put the boot in. However, in spite of many difficulties, May stuck to her guns: free movement would end.

EU unelected chief negotiator Michel Barnier was likely to also put the boot in, pompously maintaining that freedom of movement was an uncrossable ‘red line’ – despite many EU member states questioning it.

(The ‘negotiations’ were an embarrassment. Were people wondering if we’d better just leave next March, and take our £40bn football home with us?)

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September 2018

Abbott immigration speech: nothing on free movement

A speech on immigration by the UK opposition home affairs minister managed to completely avoid the toxic topic of free movement.

Labour’s stubbornly metrocentric shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, made a speech in London on 13 September 2018 explaining Labour’s policy on immigration.

In her speech, Abbott announced a reformed work visa policy which would be available to ‘all those we need to come here, whether it is doctors, or scientists, or care workers, or others’.

However, apart from saying that ‘anyone who arrived here under the Freedom of Movement provisions up to the exit date must continue to be accorded those same rights going forward’, Abbott’s speech had no reference at all to free movement, whether ending it or – as she previously advocated – defending it.

However, she referred several times to the possibility of immigration being part of a trade deal with the EU, or with others. She said that Labour’s immigration policy would be ‘Brexit-ready’:

‘Brexit-ready means that our new system can be applied and can accommodate any new trade agreements. That is an agreement either with the EU itself or trade agreements with other countries…If access by our trade partners – and by us – is needed as part of any trade deal, our system can accommodate it. It will be Brexit-ready.’

Perhaps Abbott was hoping that, although it was apparently still Labour party policy to end her beloved free movement, it might be revived as part of some Frankenstein trade deal.

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September 2018

Belfast legal report: the Irish back door

A report published in Northern Ireland addressed the issue of back-door access for EU immigrants.

Brexit, Border Controls and Free Movement, by BrexitLawNI, said that advocates of further migration controls view the region as a potential ‘back door’ to the UK after Brexit.

The report said that the UK had ruled out passport controls within the common travel area (CTA) agreed between the UK and Ireland, and intended to rely on ‘in-country‘ controls by, for instance, landlords and employers. This is the disastrous ‘hostile’ environment that caused the Windrush scandal.

Given the risk of ‘in-country’ controls being even more pronounced in NI, and given the potential ‘back-door’ problem, the report recommended that the CTA be legally underpinned and that continued EU freedom of movement into NI and across the CTA should be considered as an option.

However, given the government’s assurance that there’ll be no border in the Irish Sea, wouldn’t that be a front door to continued mass EU migration to mainland UK?

Perhaps the back door – and the front door – could be closed by giving Northern Ireland back to the Irish. The self-styled Unionists – who want to keep Northern Ireland within the UK, but couldn’t actually care less about the UK – would object for a while, but they’d be fine.

Given our brutal history of colonialism in Ireland (1), it’d be fair to give it back. We could have a referendum on it! (Admittedly, it’d be constitutionally challenging. Maybe we could buy the Unionist majority out.)

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September 2018

Migration report: ‘End free movement’

An independent government-sponsored report on the impact of EU immigration to the UK recommended that freedom of movement should end.

The report by the migration advisory committee (MAC), EEA migration in the UK: Final report said, in a foreword by MAC chair Professor Alan Manning:

‘…we recommend moving to a system in which all migration is managed with no preferential access to EU citizens.

‘This would mean ending free movement… The problem with free movement is that it leaves migration to the UK solely up to migrants and UK residents have no control over the level and mix of migration. With free movement there can be no guarantee that migration is in the interests of UK residents.’

Well said, Prof. That was a major concern of Leave voters, but the issue had been largely ignored by the political establishment.

Manning made it clear that his recommendation was based on immigration not being part of the negotiations with the EU and the UK deciding its future migration system in isolation. He apparently accepted that ending free movement might be bargained away to get a trade deal.

However, as ending free movement was the current position of the government, the report should have strengthened its negotiating position – and weakened that of pompous obstructionist M Barnier.

Needless to say, business leaders, hooked on cheap east European labour, immediately started squealing. They’d had two and a half years to think about kicking their habit, and their lobbyists had squeezed out a further two-year ‘implementation period‘ during which free movement would pretty much continue. But like the pathetic junkies they are, they’re hurting. Bless.

UK prime minister Theresa May was said to be planning to push the MAC report throught her cabinet, despite oppostion from remoaners Philip Hammond (finance minister) and Greg Clark (business minister and lobbyist for the business squealers).

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November 2018

Draft withdrawal agreement – free movement to continue during transition

The Government published a draft withdrawal agreement (DWA) on Brexit, the final result of many months ‘negotiations’. The DWA would require the UK to follow EU rules during the transition period. Apparently, this included the free movement of people.

After getting agreement on the draft from her cabinet, UK premier Theresa May said,

‘When you strip away the detail, the choice before us is clear: this deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union – or leave with no deal. Or no Brexit at all.’

The DWA made no mention of free movement of people (except in a section on Gibraltar). However, it specified that the UK would continue to observe all EU rules during the transition period (or implementation period, as the government calls it).

Apparently, May’s claim that the DWA deal would end free movement merely referred to the DWA kindly allowing us to leave after the transition period, and the UK then being able to take full control of immigration.

Over the last year or so, the government had been consistently inconsistent about exactly when free movement would end.

  • In July 2017 (see above), amid cabinet squabbling, a spokesman for May said that free movement would end in March 2019.
  • In September 2017 (see above), May said that free movement would continue for two years after March 2019, albeit subject to registration.
  • In October 2017 (see above), immigration minister Brandon Lewis said that free movement would end in March 2019.
  • On 2 March 2018 (see above), May said that free movement would end when we left the EU.
  • On 19 March (see above), the government published an interim draft withdrawal agreement which said that free movement would continue during the two-year post-Brexit transition period. This is now apparently the government’s position.

The main stumbling block for the DWA was the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland (yawn). The DWA’s compromised solution could apparently result in the UK being permanently stuck in the proposed temporary customs union.

Despite supposed cabinet agreement on the DWA, this contentious issue led to the resignation of several ministers soon afterwards, including Brexit minister Dominic Raab (who’d replaced David Davis for four short months after Davis’s resignation in July – see above).

A government white paper on immigration, awaited for over a year and supposedly due soon, was expected to say that free movement would end.

Unelected panjandrum Michel Barnier, arrogant EU negotiator and obstructionist, was the chief architect of the humiliating DWA. Barnier twisted the knife still further by helpfully suggesting that The UK could extend its transtion period by two years, at a cost of about £20bn (on top of the £40bn already agreed).

That would mean four more years of free movement. Merci beaucoup, Monsieur.

May was now – again! – under threat of removal by her own party. Meanwhile, she grimly hung on to the DWA schedule: approval of the DWA by EU states Germany and France and their flock of sheep, followed by a crunch parliamentary vote.

If, as seemed likely (given the oposition to the DWA from almost every side), that vote was to fail, then things would get messy. The options would then include a second referendum, a general election – or ‘no deal‘.

What would ‘no deal’ mean to leave voters concerned about free movement? No pollsters seemed to have asked. (Dear reader, if you know different, leave a Comment.)

‘No deal’ would at least have the merit of shaking things up. As a former anarchist, I find that quite appealing. And we’d survive, somehow.

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November 2018

Draft political declaration: free movement to end – draft documents approved by EU

The government published a full and final version of its draft political declaration on Brexit. It confirmed their intention to end free movement. This and the draft withdrawal agreement were approved by the 27 other EU states.

When the government published the Brexit draft withdrawal agreement (DWA) (see above), they also published a short draft political declaration (DPD), which addressed the future relationship between the EU and the UK. They now published a new 26-page version of the DPD.

The DPD had been agreed by negotiators, and needed to be approved – along with the DWA – by the 27 other EU countries at a Brussels summit on 25 November, and then by the UK parliament.

The first, seven-page, DPD mentioned free movement just once, under the heading of ‘Security partnership‘. A very long non-sentence proposed:

‘…reciprocal law enforcement and judicial cooperation…taking into account…the fact that the United Kingdom will be acountry that does not provide for the free movement of persons.’

The new – better written – 26-page version didn’t mention free movement under ‘Security partnership‘. (That section merely said, ‘The [security] partnership will respect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom…’).

However, the new DPD mentioned free movement of people twice elsewhere. In the introduction, it said:

‘The future relationship will be based on a balance of rights and obligations …This balance must ensure…the sovereignty of the United Kingdom…while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to…the ending of free movement of people between the Union and the United Kingdom.’

More specifically, under the heading of ‘Mobility‘, the new DPD said:

‘Noting that the United Kingdom has decided that the principle of free movement of persons between the Union and the United Kingdom will no longer apply, the Parties should establish mobility arrangements…’

In spite of Spain having a hissy fit about Gibraltar and vainly threatening to derail EU approval, the EU 27 duly rubber-stamped both documents – the DWA and the DPD – at the summit.

The two documents then needed approval by the UK parliament at a vote due in mid-December. Speculation about what might happen if, as expected, it got voted down spiralled into seeming hallucinogenic madness. Welcome to Planet Panic.

In any case, we were legally bound to leave next March. The EU could have allowed an article 50 extension for a second referendum – but what would the question have been?

Suggested format for a second referendum

Please place a tick next to one of the following statements:

1. I’m an intelligent urban liberal who lost last time, but it wasn’t fair, so I’ve demanded a second referendum, and this time I want the obviously correct result: to stay in the EU.

2. I’m allegedly an ignorant provincial racist who supposedly got it wrong last time, but I haven’t changed my mind – and I resent being asked to vote again.

Alternatively, a new referendum might address the Brexit Irish ‘question’ by asking: Should Northern Ireland be unified with Ireland? Yes or No.

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December 2018

Plan B touted: ‘Norway plus’ (includes free movement)

As panic increased in the UK political bubble known as Westminster (the London location of parliament) in advance of the vote on UK premier Theresa May’s Brexit ‘plan’, ie, the draft withdrawal agreement (see above) and the draft political declaration (see above), and as wild flowcharts filled newspaper pages, MPs’ thoughts turned to Plan B.

May was holding firm, echoing former UK premier Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no alternative’. However, perhaps with May’s tacit approval, some of her cabinet colleagues (including tax-avoiding minister Amber Rudd) had joined with influential Labour MPs (including Europhile Stephen Kinnock) to tout ‘Norway plus‘, a scenario featuring continued free movement.

Norway isn’t a member of the EU but is in the European Economic Area (EEA), meaning it’s part of the European single market. It contributes to the EU budget, and has to follow most EU rules and laws, including the freedom of movement of goods, services, capital – and people.

Norway isn’t part of the EU customs union, so, to avoid a hard Irish border (yawn), a new customs union with the EU – a ‘Norway plus‘ solution – would be needed.

To get into the EEA, the UK would have to join Efta – the European Free Trade Association, namely Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

The plan was rejected by Heidi Nordby Lunde, an MP in Norway’s governing Conservative party, and leader of Norway’s European movement. Lunde, claiming that her views reflected those of the governing party, said:

‘It is not in my country’s interests to have the UK aboard, and I cannot see how possibly an EEA/Efta agreement could be in the interests of the UK As part of the agreement with the EU we accept migration and free movement, we have our own body of justice, but it is compliant with the European court of justice. We accept the rules and regulations of the single market.’

Plan Z, anybody?

Here’s mine. Let parliament:

  1. Implement previously unused immigration controls, as allowed under EU rules
  2. Get a two-month Brexit extension to give time for ref2
  3. Hold a second referendum, and if, as expected now that mass immigration from poor east European countries had been stopped, the referendum delivered a Remain majority, then –
  4. Cancel Article 50 as allowed by a recent EU ruling
  5.  Er, that’s it

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Footnote 1

A brief history of the UK’s brutal colonisation of Ireland, and its troubled aftermath

Centuries of military incursions ended in the 17th-century conquest of Ireland by mass murderer Oliver Cromwell, and Ireland became a British colony.

Several horrific famines and brutally suppressed rebellions later, in 1921 Ireland was partitioned, and the main part was given independence. It became a republic in 1949, and joined the EU in 1973.

At the time of partition, the north chose to stay in the UK. Since the settlement of the consequent Troubles by the Good Friday agreement of 1998, the Unionists, mostly Protestants, who want to stay in the UK, have existed in uneasy opposition to the Republicans, mostly Catholics, who want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland, also known as Éire, and officially known as Ireland.

The Unionists are mostly descendants of settlers forced out of Scotland by the 18th- and 19th-century theft of land known as the Clearances and given land in northern Ireland mostly stolen from the Irish.

(Regarding theft of land by the aristocracy, see my blogpost ‘Law and order‘.)

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4 thoughts on “Brexit and the east European elephant

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