What if Brits are actually free-marketeers, not racists?

Jonathan Arnott discusses why CANZUK is popular but EU free movement is not

Poll after poll has showed that British people aren’t keen on unlimited immigration from the European Union. The so-called ‘free movement’ permitting people from the EU27 to live and work in the UK, no questions asked, doesn’t really gain widespread public support – even though British people receive the equivalent right in EU countries. Likewise, there’s been a general consensus since the Blair government that immigration is too high, that levels should be controlled.


There’s an apparent contradiction though: when people are polled on CANZUK, suddenly the idea finds broad public support. For those who haven’t heard of CANZUK, I’m referring to a campaign to allow so-called ‘free movement’ between Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the UK which would effectively mirror (or replace) the freedom of movement within the European Union. When this idea is polled, it gains a substantial majority of public support. Depending on exactly how the question is asked, it seems that  roughly 60% of people favour the idea.


So why this discrepancy? Why is one kind of immigration popular, whilst another is not? To the political Left, the reason is clear: the majority stands accused and convicted of that most vile of offences: racism. Judgement having been handed down, sentence must inevitably follow: vilification, re-education, and instruction to ‘check your privilege’.
Mass racism is a rather outlandish proposed explanation, though. It would require tens of millions of people to secretly harbour racist views, somehow hiding them from one another, unbeknownst to their nearest and dearest. It smacks of conspiracy theorism, frankly. I prefer to use Occam’s Razor: the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best. (My political adaptation of Occam’s Razor is that in any government crisis, the default assumption should be government incompetence – never cry ‘conspiracy’ until you’ve first ruled out the simpler possibility)


In this case, the simplest explanation is that – like with the wisdom of crowds – the British people are silently articulating, instinctively understanding, a different point. Let’s look at some of the differences between the EU27 free movement and the CANZUK proposal:


1. Canada, New Zealand and Australia are all English-speaking countries. There is no language barrier like the one that exists with the EU nations. It’s therefore much less one-sided: English is the first foreign language taught in schools across Europe. People of all the EU27 will likely speak at least basic English, but what of the reciprocal right for British people? There’s no attraction for me to go and live and work in Bulgaria – because I don’t speak a word of the language. That barrier is unlikely to exist in reverse. I speak reasonable Spanish, having done some TV and radio interviews in Spanish. Others learned French at school; others German, and others Italian. People will tend to go somewhere they already speak a bit of the language, which makes the UK a top destination for all of those other 27 countries. Thus, the language barrier provides a distortion – that’s one reason why there’s roughly 3 times as many EU citizens living in the UK as vice versa.


2. Canada, New Zealand and Australia are all countries with broadly similar legal systems. They haven’t evolved from Napoleonic law, as on much of continental Europe. To look at the Eastern European and Mediterranean legal systems in more detail would require a far more technical article than this, but these differences underpin difficulties as diverse as those faced by British people in Cypriot property scams to the misuse of the European Arrest Warrant to send British citizens to foreign jails.


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3.  Canada, New Zealand and Australia are all members of the Five Eyes intelligence network. People moving from one country to another within areas covered by that network would create far fewer problems for security services: intelligence is known and trusted to the highest standards in the world.


The argument that ‘Europe is in closer geographical proximity’ seems to be trivial by comparison. Race doesn’t come into it; after all, given the substantial indigenous populations in the CANZUK countries, a real racist would find it difficult to swallow that particular proposal. Here the Left-wing ‘everyone is racist’ conspiracy theory requires another twist: ‘everyone is racist, and racists are stupid, so they must not understand what they support’.


I’ve saved the biggest reason until last: Canada, New Zealand and Australia are countries which are roughly equal in prosperity, development, and GDP per capita to the UK. Within the EU27, the difference in living standards creates a huge disparity. Such disparities distort the market. I’m massively in favour of the free market. There are a few times where I will differ from the libertarian position, because I’m not a card-carrying libertarian: in my view there are specific situations in which government intervention can be necessary in a tiny minority of situations, usually those where a long-term strategic overview is necessary. We could argue about the 1% of cases, but I’d rather focus on the 99% where the power of the market works well.


Supply and demand, though, matters. Permitting free movement from countries with a minimum wage vastly lower than our own leads to a massive oversupply of unskilled and semi-skilled labour. That oversupply drives down wages, reduces the income differences between unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, and makes it harder for young people to find their first job. It’s in the interests disproportionately of big business over small business. If you take an otherwise-free market, and create an artificial distortion, the consequences of that are likely to be negative. When someone degree-educated moves from country A to country B, to do a minimum-wage job in country B, this results in a brain drain in country A as well as reducing the options available to unskilled workers in country B. Furthermore, those who find themselves suddenly earning five or six times as much as they used to earn will often be prepared to work under different conditions; they might take shorter lunch breaks, or work additional hours. A worker on minimum wage can’t compete with that.


This supply-and-demand issue is one which I’ve heard expressed in many different ways by local workers who have lost jobs, been forced to take pay cuts, or find it more difficult to find employment. It’s no coincidence, surely, that as EU migration to the UK has slowed over the past 12 months, unemployment has fallen and wages are now beginning to rise in real terms for the first time in years. Although they might not express their views in terms of economics, factory workers, baristas and supermarket shelf-stackers understand the principles behind the pressures they face. These problems just wouldn’t exist when it comes to CANZUK, and instinctively they know that.


It turns out they’re not racists after all; they’re actually quite nuanced free-marketeers. Who would have thought it?
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