The British people would rather have freedom of movement than an end to free trade with the EU. You don’t hear that a lot from the “no deal/will of the people” brigade but it’s true. According to the British Social Attitudes survey, 58% think the UK should accept a deal that allows people from the EU to come here freely to live and work.
In fact, as noted by this week’s Home Affairs Select Committee (HASC) report, the British people’s view of immigration is a lot more nuanced than some of the loudest parts of our media would have you believe. We believe immigration has been good for the British economy and British culture by around three to one and two to one respectively – a major positive shift over the last few years.
Elsewhere in the report, the Committee discusses UCL’s “Citizens Assembly on Brexit”. Over two weekends, members of the public looked at what the UK’s trade and immigration policy should be post-Brexit. Here again, when participants were presented with various options on immigration and the trade-offs at play, a majority wanted the UK to maintain the free movement of labour.
Similarly, when Global Future costed the four most plausible Brexit scenarios from the Norway model through to No Deal, and asked the public to make a forced choice between them, retaining membership of the Single Market – including the continuation of free movement – was the runaway winner.
All of this, of course, has emerged as the debate rages on about the type of Brexit our country should pursue, yet one of Theresa May’s only consistent red lines is that free movement must end – even if she is still unable to say what a future immigration regime will look like.
Sadly, she has form when it comes to hanging onto self-defeating immigration policy. The Prime Minister is very possibly the last person in Britain who believes in her target to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. A target which, if the UK were to meet it, would hit us all in higher taxes or reduced spending on our NHS and other public services. Indeed, the new Home Secretary Sajid Javid had to fight to force the PM into relaxing the rules on bringing much-needed doctors into vacant positions in our NHS, a move that had widespread public support, and one that our health service desperately needed as it suffers from a prolonged staffing crisis.
But perhaps the door is opening for her to think again. Chequers is dead, No Deal would be catastrophic, and the chance of a People’s Vote is now becoming a real possibility. If the Prime Minister wants to deliver Brexit, accepting free movement could be her only route.
We all know there is a majority in the Commons – across both parties – for a soft Brexit. It would be a fair representation of a 52/48 referendum result, and it would be a welcome shift back to politics in the public interest. After all, if the British people want free trade with Europe without political alignment and an ever-closer union then the Norway model is the best possible fit.
The alternative by the way, isn’t just a big hit to our economy and our public finances – and therefore higher taxes or cuts to our public services. The unintended consequences will be great – and we are already seeing a few straws in the wind.
Let’s look at nursing. Almost 4,000 nurses and midwives from Europe left the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register between 2017 and 2018, with just 805 – the lowest ever – joining in the same period. An NMC survey found that almost half (47%) of the EEA nurses and midwives who responded agreed with the statement “Brexit has encouraged me to consider working outside the UK”, while 59% said “I am leaving or have left the UK”.
And there is growing evidence that the NHS is finding it more difficult to recruit and retain clinical staff from Europe as well. Back in February, it was reported that the number of nurses from the EU registering to work in the UK had dropped by 96% – from 1,304 in July 2016 to 46 in April 2017.
If we choose to end freedom of movement – against our own economic interests – the message to the health workers, carers and tens of thousands of other European workers our public services rely on will be absolutely clear.
There is a better way. Yet, not for the first time, Theresa May has misread the public mood as well as the national interest. She should put free movement – perhaps with the controls already in use across Europe, as identified in the HASC report – back on the table. She could sell it to the public – after all, a majority already agree with it – and save tens of thousands of jobs by pivoting to a more sensible Brexit. Maintaining her red line only makes sense as a tool of party management, or to keep the press at bay. She should change course and act in the best interests of the country. History’s verdict will not be kind if cowardice wins the day.