One of the most prominent rallying cries from those who'd have the UK depart the European Union is to take 'control of our borders'. It sounds like a straightforward enough proposition, but it's an overly simplistic argument that could potentially lead to our borders being far more difficult to control than they are now.
Today the UK has only one land border with another country. It is between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland: two Member States of the European Union. The border is governed by a long standing agreement that enables the free movement of people between the two countries, a factor that has been important for cordial relations for over 90 years. That arrangement was also important in securing the peace that Northern Ireland has now enjoyed for getting on for two decades, after nearly three of violence between those seeking a United Ireland and those wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Should the UK leave, then that open border would not be able to remain, not if we are to have 'control of our borders'. This is not only for want of preventing illegal immigrants from entering via that route from the European Union, but also for seeking to control the potential movement of people who've moved to Ireland and become Irish citizens, and who under the current arrangements can come to the UK.
If current rules remained in place then people from Poland, Romania and the rest of the EU could come to the UK via that route as Irish citizens, quite legally, unless the law were changed of course. Remarkably, prominent Brexiter and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has claimed that in the event of a Brexit that the rules governing the border between the Republic and the North would remain unchanged. Hardly a policy to secure 'control of our borders'.
If we left the EU then that might not be the only land border that would need policing. Another might be created between England and Scotland. If the UK as a whole were to vote to leave, but a majority of Scots elected to stay, then there would be firm grounds for a new referendum on Scottish independence. Should that lead to a break up of the Union then Scotland would seek membership of the EU and there would be another land border that would need to be subject immigration controls equivalent to those at Heathrow and Dover, that is if we wish to have 'control of our borders'.
Given the roll back of social and environmental safeguards that will likely follow a Brexit (EU critics have for a long time described these as 'red tape' that holds us back), then the progressive and green nation of Wales might similarly find its population seeking a vote on independence. Brexit is a mainly English agenda and in a diminished UK that lacked the tempering effect of Scotland's social justice agenda on British politics, the Welsh might see a better future in the EU with a Celtic group that included Ireland and Scotland. The largely Conservative and English Brexiters seem oblivious to the rancor generated by many of their policies in Wales and Scotland and Brexit could be the trigger that leaves them in a future union that is between only themselves and Northern Ireland.
Should that happen, in say twenty years' time, then a third land border would be created, further upping the challenge of 'controlling our borders'. By then, who knows what scale of movement of people might be underway, given the impacts of among other things climate change and the nexus of economic and social challenges that will be its companions. Should the national consciences of Ireland, Scotland and Wales lead them to take refugees fleeing future wars or environmental change, where will that leave England's borders?
Somewhere down the line we might find Boris Johnson as a modern day Hadrian, proposing a new barrier to defend against threats from an untamable north. Maybe Nigel Farage has ambitions to go down in history as a modern day Offa, setting out on epic earthworks to separate England and Wales as the Mercian King did in the 8th Century.
Johnson's Wall and Farage's Dyke lack the romance of their historic antecedents, but if they wish to take 'control of our borders', that might well be where we are heading. Ridiculous? Well, all sorts of absurd excesses are justified in populist politics based on 'control of our borders'. The most likely Republican candidate for the US Presidency has in part built his political base on promises of a new wall to separate his supporters from Mexico.
Right now the UK is surrounded by sea and has one land border with a friendly country that is part of the same political union. People mostly enter from other countries by sea and air through well-run ports. Should we leave the EU that could come to an end and a very different situation arise. In the fractured UK that risks following a Brexit England's borders will include not only airports, ports and motorways, but A-roads, B-roads and unclassified lanes, not to mention remote woods, moorlands and river valleys.
As is the case with so many of the promises offered by the Brexiters there is a great deal of risk and uncertainty that lies behind the beguiling attraction of their simplistic sound-bites. If you believe we should have 'control of our borders', then remaining in the EU might well prove to be the best way to do it. In the uncertain world that lies before us, a United Kingdom mostly surrounded by water and following the same rules as Ireland is the place to be, the place where we can have most control.