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The latest statement by Theresa May on EU citizens’ rights is another sign of how hopeless this government has become.
During the referendum, we were assured by Brexiteers that, after Brexit, EU citizens would not be treated as ‘bargaining chips’ in a negotiation strategy. But for the last two years that is exactly what Theresa May has done.
Now, halfway through a trip to China that has barely registered here or abroad, she said:
“When we agreed the citizens’ rights deal in December, we did so on the basis that people who had come to the UK when we were a member of the EU had set up certain expectations. It was right that we have made an agreement that ensured they could continue their life in the way they had wanted to. Now for those who come after March 2019, that will be different because they will be coming to a UK that they know will be outside the EU.”
That isn’t good enough. During the two year transition Britain after March 2019, Britain has agreed to sign up to the EU’s rules. It is only fair that this covers the rights and interests of those who come here while we still have EU free movement.
From the start the government has botched this subject. It should have made a unilateral gesture of goodwill to the millions of EU citizens who live and work in the UK – and she needed to reassure the very many Brits abroad. That required bold and serious leadership. It required Theresa May to pay less attention to the hard Brexiteers in her own party. It required her to govern for all; to bind the nation together.
When Theresa May gained power, I was sympathetic. Here was a compromise candidate who was willing to take on the difficult, and thankless task of giving the country some sense of stability. As a furious (and still furious) Remainer, I was comforted: at least if we’re going to do this, let’s do it with competent and pragmatic decision-making.
And for a while, her obvious personal inadequacies could be ignored: her control-freakery and lack of eloquence, for example. Anyway, the British people were tired of the smooth ‘Blairite but not quite as charismatic’ style of leadership that had become a hallmark of the Cameron premiership.
But then she got some ideas:
“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” she said in her party conference speech in the autumn of 2016. It was an affront.
My parents lived on the continent for the majority of their working life. They lived alongside our European friends; spoke their languages; and tried to understand their literature; their fascinations; their fears and their hatreds. I was born in Luxembourg: a European mongrel. And as I grew up, I was told to be a citizen of the world was a ‘good thing’. To be curious about difference is important, and an adventure of the spirit.
And then I thought: okay, maybe that’s unfair. Elites are always reviled. It’s the easiest trick in politics. And anti-intellectualism (along with its spiritual cousin, anti-Semitism) is everywhere at the moment. You can hardly blame the PM for trying to come to terms with that. It’s incurious and boring and easy, but nothing will come of it.
But today’s pronouncement on free movement fits into that spirit of smallness that is the hallmark of the May administration, part of a complete inability to make generous, bold, difficult decisions.
The British celebration of multiculturalism was never just a Blairite fad: it is an irreducible fact of British identity. In 1701, just before the Acts of Union between England and Scotland, Daniel Defoe wrote: “A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction … Since scarce one family is left alive, which does not from some foreigner derive”. We’ve always been a bit of a hodge-podge, a bit of a mess; a mongrel country just off the coast of Europe.
We don’t have much truck with grand, collective ideals (à la France), but prefer to see society as a patchwork of diverging interests. We come together in times of great need, many hands weaving together in harmony for some sense of good. After the War, we built the NHS together. But for the most part, the artistry and symbolism of the nation are treated with profound unease, and those who fetishise its works are seen for what they are: priggish, immature, obsessive.
Throughout most of its history, Britain has had an unstable core: eternally fluctuating between parochial recidivism and outward openness; between the city and the country; between North and South. And I like that patchwork of anarchy and the freedom it endows.
But today, Theresa May struck a new blow for the parochial tendency. She is permanently narrowing what it means to be British. And I can’t sodding stand it.