A Trip To Leave Land

Understanding the leave campaign has been difficult for me, so last week I vowed to make a real effort to talk and listen to as many leavers as I could. I joined threads on local Facebook groups and started discussions with friends publicly and privately about what the case for leave is in order to try and understand it. I spoke to people, I knew well and many I don’t know at all.

Sometimes I asked in a bit of an exasperated tone, but, to their credit, they were always willing to take the time to discuss it with me in a reasonable manner, for which I am grateful. I came to two broad conclusions:

1.Immigration was the point pretty much every leaver I spoke to brought up first.

For many it was the only point. I learned that the main difference between myself and the overwhelming majority of the leave camp can be summed up thusly:

I think the UK is amazing because of immigration, leavers think the UK is amazing despite immigration.

On this point I wondered if perhaps I live in a bubble. Maybe in the workplaces and social circles I’ve participated in, I’ve just happened to only meet immigrants that I like. Perhaps the vets, product testers, students, sports coaches, GPs, SQL writers, factory workers, food sellers and artists that I know in real life have given me a false perspective of immigration. Perhaps there’s another side I’m unaware of; so I asked for examples where immigration was a real problem.

I found that whilst the anti-immigration sentiment is often bitter (sometimes shockingly so), I was unable to find any real world examples of EU immigration being a problem. On the surface the notion that ‘immigration is a problem’ is an easy sell (surely hospitals can’t just keep treating more and more people) and it makes a good headline, however when pushed I couldn’t get any solid examples of places where immigration really was a problem. There were anecdotes of health tourism and tax dodging, but these stories did not gel with figures or the vast amount of migrant health professionals propping up the NHS.

Try as I might, I have been unable to find any kind of economic or social case against immigration. For these reasons I remain convinced that the enormous gains to our society vastly outweigh the costs of immigration, and the UK is much more likely to exploit immigrants with poor working conditions, than immigrants are to exploit us. To put it bluntly, nasty warehouses aside (I’m looking at you Sports Direct), immigration appears to be something we do extraordinarily well in the UK.

2. The leave camp genuinely believe that a deal with the EU that allows access to the market without freedom of movement is a certainty.

Broadly speaking, the leave camp have a fairly clear idea of what a deal with the EU will look like. In their minds, the EU will have no choice but to make a deal with the UK that allows us control of our borders (perhaps via a points system) and control over our own laws, whilst also allowing us access to the common market.

Everyone on the leave side that I spoke to has real pride in the fact that the UK is the 5th biggest economy in the world, and this is seen as a kind of trump card that makes it a certainty that the EU will have no choice but to give in to our demands. There is a deep confidence in the British brand, and the notion of anything other than a timely deal where everyone gets what they want, goes completely unexamined.

The idea that such a deal is not a likely outcome is of no concern to any of the leavers I spoke to. Any rumblings from Europe that such a deal does not look likely were immediately laughed off, and I couldn’t find a leaver that was willing to think about what the alternatives might look like. I think, depressingly, its fair to say that the leave camp have not thought through the range possible outcomes with any kind of methodical approach, but most worryingly, I would even go as for as saying that for many leave voters, the nature of the deal is unimportant when compared to the ‘victory’ we will score by controlling our borders.

A quick look at the alternatives reveals why the leavers are not inclined to think it through methodically — it’s a very complex problem.

I looked at the deal Norway has (access to the market, but no border controls for EU citizens) and Switzerland (literally hundreds of different deals on a nation by nation basis, also no border controls for EU citizens), and I cannot for the life of me figure out where the idea has come from that we will be able to get a deal that allows access to the market without freedom of movement — a core principal of the EU. In fact UK and Ireland are the only EU countries that have border controls for EU citizens, because we already negotiated it as part of our EU membership (it’s one of the perks of being a long time member). If we leave, this deal will be nullified, and we’ll have to re-negotiate, which means that a likely negotiating point for the EU will be access to the common market in exchange for the free movement of EU citizens without border controls. This will obviously not be acceptable to the leavers.

I can’t see the leave camp being happy with a Norway or Switzerland type of deal, but equally I can’t see the EU being happy with a border control or points system type of deal. With both parties stuck at such core issues, a long and difficult negotiation process is currently the most likely outcome. The outcome of such a long process is impossible to predict, but the leavers that do engage with the issue of ‘the deal’, have every faith that the British brand will carry us through it. I am not convinced by this. I watched Boris Johnson at the select committee and frankly he did not come across as a strong negotiator. In fact, like many of the leavers, I don’t get the impression that the details of the deal are very important to Boris.

If we can’t make a deal directly with the EU that both parties are happy with, perhaps we can bypass the EU and make hundreds of smaller deals like Switzerland. Switzerland have had 40 years to build and maintain these deals, however, they too allow the freedom of movement of EU citizens without border controls as a part of their deal making process. Once again, this outcome would obviously not be acceptable to the leavers, but there’s no reason to suppose that because we’re making hundreds of deals instead of one deal, that any of those EU countries wouldn’t still require the free movement of their peoples. They also already have a set of trading standards and laws set in place by the EU which they will likely want us to adhere to.

A further problem to the ‘hundreds of deals’ outcome is the sheer amount of diplomacy it would take to make that number of deals from scratch. How long would this process take? Each deal would likely take a different amount of time depending on the particular sticking points of each nation. Some may be happy to make a deal quickly, some may stick tight to their principals. It is not unreasonable to expect such a complex diplomatic process to take decades. How long before a single deal that includes border controls (like the one we have now) starts to look like the simple solution?

Either way, I have been completely unable to find a reasonably likely outcome where the nature of the deal (or hundreds of deals) we strike, either with the EU or with the individual nations in it, is straightforward or forthcoming.

On a personal level this worries me greatly. I do not believe that the leave campaign have thought ‘the deal’ through to any reasonable degree. And the bravado with which they dismiss the warnings from Europe is frankly frightening.

I have a good job that I like a lot, but I work in the public sector, and in the event of wide ranging cuts resulting from long term uncertainty as we struggle to nail down a deal with the EU or its composite nations, my job could well be on the chopping block. Perhaps I will find work in a small private agency or a cube in a multi-national. Perhaps I will take a paycut or move to smaller house than my 3 bed mid-terrace. These will be crucial years for me. I’m not getting any younger so I need to think about whether or not I would like to raise a family. If I do, I’d like a hospital that has enough staff. I’d like to be able to put some money away to help my kids with their student debt, or take a holiday every now and then.

These are my concerns of course; they don’t weigh too heavy on the shoulders of those in the leave camp.

I have listened to the leave camp, I promise I have, but I don’t believe there is any outcome that has been described to me where we leave and end up better off in the short or long term. Some have lovingly reassured me that I’m bright, and that if it comes to it I’ll find a job. But sometimes in a tough economy bright isn’t enough, and I already have a house and a job.

I’m happy as I am.