It’s not a secret that I’m depressed about the Referendum result, nor that I’ve argued with countless Brexiteers before and after the vote about all the lies that were told, all the misconceptions and the many economic factors which will, at least in my opinion, become clear over the coming months and years.
But the single biggest reason I’m sad is not much discussed, yet in my view will have the biggest long term impact on Britain and our position in the world.
Freedom of movement allows all of us to move to live and work anywhere in the EU. I don’t believe anyone has truly grasped the implications of giving that right away, nor that in historical terms it will come to be seen as the most retrograde political decision taken voluntarily by a people for many years.
Just imagine if the German people had decided to undo the Zollverein, the precursor of Germany as we know it today, or if the Italians had decided before WW1, after 40-odd years, to undo the Risorgimento and go back to all their independent nation-states. We would look back at them with incomprehension and wonder what on earth could have impelled a people voluntarily to take such a leap back into the past.
But does it really matter, freedom of movement for UK citizens in the EU? What real use is it, what value does it have…don’t we live in the best country to whose drawbridge they all beat a path, haven’t we already won the prize?
To understand the answer it’s important to understand that I’m thinking primarily of the value of the right to live and work for our young people, those below 30 today, and those who have yet to be born. It’s also necessary to understand how young people of other EU countries think, study, live and work. The most striking difference I’ve found between the young of the U.K. and our neighbours is how normal Italians, Spanish, Greek, Germans etc find it to learn to speak each others’ languages, to study in a different EU country, to move jobs internationally within the EU, to have networks of friends and colleagues from different countries etc etc.. If there exists such a thing as a popular movement which will in time influence political direction, then this modus vivendi may well be it….European political union may eventually come about purely and simply because eventually, so many people will have lived that way and come to wonder why on earth a region of people with so much in common choose to divide themselves artificially into nation-states.
in contrast, UK young people are not so cosmopolitan, are more insular in attitude and practice. Of course, geography plays a part. It’s much trickier to visit different countries for a Brit living in Manchester than for someone living on the French/German/Swiss border, for example. But it’s more than that. There’s a reticence in our character, a fear of speaking other languages, a feeling that we are superior in theory but a worry that in practice the people from other countries we meet tend to disprove that, which doesn’t inspire confidence, and many other reasons which lead our young people to study, work and live somewhere else to a lesser degree than our EU neighbours.
You see, it’s our mindset that’s different from our neighbours’. We are in mind as well as in body, more insular. Again, look to the past to understand: 100 years ago people had the same attitude in general about moving from the North of England to live and work in London. 200 years ago, about moving to the neighbouring county. 300 years ago, about leaving their village. In 100 years to come all Europeans will look at us today and just not comprehend how it was we thought the way we do and why we lived within those constraints. The fact is that many continental Europeans already look at us with that mixture of incomprehension and sympathy now. It’s for that reason we ought to be encouraging and even investing actively in supporting our young people to move to live and work, to gain knowledge, skills and experience from our EU neighbours.
The result is, in terms of their ability to lead organisations and businesses which are international, as increasingly they are, our young people are at an increasing disadvantage compared to their contemporaries. Right now the impacts aren’t too significant but, I predict, the differential which has anyway been growing, will grow greater and greater and ultimately result in a loss of competitiveness for our people and our country. That’s to say nothing at all about the social, cultural, academic and all the other benefits greater exposure to other societies and ways of thinking and co-operating that international experiences can bring. Of course, it’s true that our young people will still be able to study and live in America, Australia and everywhere else outside the EU unchanged. But distance has always made that less easy and it will continue to do so…it’s much easier to live and work an hour and a half’s Easyjet flight away than 6-18 hours, if you still want to pop home at a weekend to see your mum and friends.
I’m a passionate Remainer and will continue to be so until Brexit really is Brexit. But of all the reasons why, this, the concern for our country’s future and our children’s children is the one that is strongest in my heart, yet least mentioned in 140 characters. The trouble with pulling up the drawbridge is that eventually, you will starve yourself to death in your splendid isolation.