As a fully paid-up Remoaner, I’ve grown tired of hearing from Michael Gove and others of his ilk that the vote to leave the EU specifically requires Britain to abandon the Single Market and the Customs Union. As far as the Govites are concerned, Brexit is a fait accompli in-waiting, and arguments about the means by which it is accomplished are nothing more than an attempt to subvert the will of the British people.
This is nonsense. In fact, it would be perfectly possible for Britain to leave the EU while retaining membership of the Single Market – a regime that, as with the European Convention on Human Rights and, more recently, the European Arrest Warrant (both loathed by Brexiteers), was largely a British construct. Were we to do this, our annual contribution to the EU budget would be massively reduced. We would no longer be part of the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy, and we would no longer be bound (outside of terms of trade) by rulings of the European Court of Justice. British prime ministers could wave goodbye to EU summits, and departmental ministers could draw up their monthly schedules without having to ink in pesky meetings of the European Council.
Gove and company like to make out that it was these aspects of the EU, as well, of course, as “the unelected bureaucracy of Brussels”, that the British people resented, when the truth is that they were the bits that they resented.
The proxy message, hammered home again and again by Ukip, that any economic benefits the Single Market supposedly conferred were more than cancelled out by the obligation to accept the free movement of people, was thus regretted by the Govites in much the same way as a society host might regret the fact that his dog had farted in the middle of a dinner party: embarrassing, but a fact of life. The impact of their moral dereliction was evident from the start. For it was fear of immigration, even more than a palpable dislike of the Establishment, that dominated the thinking of the great mass of Leavers.
Here’s the thing, though: immigration into the UK is not going to end. Nor is it going to lessen, It is merely going to relocate. The white paper on Brexit makes this clear. Nearly all existing migrants from Poland and elsewhere will be allowed to remain – though their right to do so will no longer be written into statute. A system will be put in place to regulate the flow and to cut down on the availability of benefits, but in essence the influx will carry on much as before. At the same time, the message will go out to other nations across the world that Britain needs a full flow of immigrants to keep its economy and its NHS going. The Tories have said this. The CBI and Institute of Directors have said it repeatedly. Even Nigel Farage has said it.
Why is this? The answer stares us in the face. British workers simply aren’t up to it. A third of all the skilled jobs in industry, commerce and public services handed out in the last ten years have gone to non-UK citizens. This is because our young people are badly educated and, in most cases, given zero training to perform any complex task. Large companies, such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, BMW and Nissan, have done their best to establish apprenticeships but in all too many cases they are hamstrung by the fact that native applicants can barely read and write or do simple sums.
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Outside of its élite schools and universities, intended primarily for the brightest and best, most of them privately educated, the United Kingdom has slipped so far down the international league table of educational excellence that it is being beaten hollow by most of Europe, Asia and even some parts of Africa. Asians in particular, coming to Britain, are astonished by the sheer ignorance of ordinary British people. As Asia expands its middle class and its skilled workforce, the UK is reverting to an ugly post-modern feudalism in which the élite live lives as far removed from those of the common people as is the case in Pakistan or Russia.
This is the problem we ought to be addressing. Instead, we have opted to flounce out of the world’s most sophisticated free-trade bloc which, among other things, affords us pre-eminence in one of the few areas in which we excel – financial services. Britain should have been fighting for the root-and-branch reform of the EU (which, God knows, could do with it) while at the same time putting its own house in order. Instead, it did neither. All we have are the meaningless ramblings of Jeremy Corbyn and the empty social rhetoric of Theresa May.
In France, where I now live, the political class is being put through the wringer, and there is no doubting the fact that the Fifth Republic is in crisis. Youth unemployment is unacceptably high, so that there are rising fears not just about immigration and terrorism, but about the fact that millions of young people risk becoming alienated from the state. The risk exists that Marine Le Pen and her Front National will exploit these fears to subvert the system and launch the democratic equivalent of a coup d’état.
Yet all is far from lost – and I don’t just mean the recent surge of newboy Emmanuel Macron. French education, like French healthcare provision, is far superior to ours. The French industrial working class and its rural counterpart, the peasantry, is properly schooled. They can read and write properly and comprehend the mysteries of arithmetic. More and more of them speak English. And, slowly, things are starting to improve. Economic growth is once more inching forward. The IT sector is taking off. The government-regulated apprenticeship system, though under sustained financial pressure, is meanwhile providing millions of young people each year with the benefits of two-to-three years of hard vocational training.
Above all, French workers are signficantly more productive that the British. They know how to put in a shift. It is reliably reported that a French factory worker will have accomplished more by Thursday lunchtime than a Brit by close of play on Friday. They do this in spite of strong unions and the much-derided 35-hour week, with the result that French manufacturing output outstrips its UK equivalent by some £16 billion a year – twice the net amount Britain pays in each year to the EU budget.
Don’t listen to the doomsayers. Europe is not finished. It will rise again. Spain – the large EU nation hardest hit by the euro crisis – is on the upswing. Italy while firmly stuck in the doldrums, mainly because of its crippled banking system, has an impressive industrial base that is showing signs of coming back to life. And don’t even get me started on Germany.
But, but … in the UK we are where we are and now, at least, we know where we are going – out of the EU, the Single Market and the Customs Union. So we have to make the best of things and look ahead to the recovery of national sovereignty and the “brilliant” trade deals that will follow. It’s just a pity that we are having to make the best of such a bad job.