The Case Against Freedom of Movement with Europe

Free movement of people within the European Union is often held up as a bastion of modern liberalism. This article starts with a single premise upon which the argument that follows is based: the idea that there is (however high or low you set it) some maximum limit on immigration which is desirable in any given year – whether that number is 100 million, or 10,000, the argument holds simply under a pragmatic assertion that it is desirable to have some upper limit on immigration.

The question that follows then, must be: what is the fairest system to determine who can enter the country? Whatever form this system takes, traditional liberal values indicate a number of crucial criteria it must fulfil. There must be a fair and equitable chance for all people who apply to enter the UK to be successful. Most importantly, there must be equality before the law: an ideal, fair and just system of immigration doesn’t take into account your race, gender, or (and here’s the crux of the problem) your nationality.

Just as it is wrong for Donald Trump to issue an arbitrary ban on people from a specific country (or, in the case of his campaign rhetoric, a specific religion), so it is wrong to give preferential treatment to some people over others, simply because of the passport that they hold. The very same people who have been quick to call out Donald Trump on the illiberalism of banning the citizens of seven countries from entering the United States have been less keen to address the hypocrisy of supporting the latter position, indeed, calling the alternative policy illiberal, or xenophobic, or racist.

There’s but one simple problem in the European Union model of immigration: free movement of people means that, if you accept the condition previously outlined about a maximum upper limit, people from 27 countries are prioritised over those from the other 169 nations. This passport discrimination, whereby you give people from some countries a privileged immigration system compared to people from other countries, is inherently illiberal as it violates that crucial condition of equality before the law. If you believe that people from Europe should possess such a privileged position with our immigration system, then by all means continue to support free movement with Europe and a more closed system with the rest of the world.

On the other hand, if you believe that all people, regardless of their result in life’s first great lottery, should have equality before the law in our immigration system, then you have one of two choices. You can choose to defend and advocate free movement of people from all countries, which seems to have significant practical and pragmatic limitations (not to mention violating the condition previously set out); or you can choose to advocate a position that would see all people face the same system of immigration, regardless of whether they come from Berlin or Brazzaville.

It doesn’t seem a fair system to say that someone from Europe should be prioritised over someone from one of the other 169 nations. Ultimately that is the main problem with a liberal justification of free movement of people within the European Union, in that it creates a situation where people are judged initially by their nationality in whether or not they can live and work in the UK. If we end free movement of people, it doesn’t mean that there has to be less immigration – the debate about how high or low the desired level of immigration is still has to be made – but it does mean we will have an inherently fairer, more just immigration system, that looks at who people are and not where they are from.

An immigration system which emphasises equality before the law seems to be the only fair, just, and liberal system. An immigration system which considers people on who they are and not the flag they were born under seems to be the only reasonable, non-discriminatory, and liberal system. An immigration system where your result in life’s first great lottery doesn’t improve or decrease your ability to live and work in the UK is the only justifiable one.

Populism Doesn’t Mean What You Think

Populism has become a synonym for ‘movement that we don’t like’ in the weird political universe of 2016/17. The truth is though, it isn’t some malevolent force which guides despots and dictators into power and herds the people towards some destination with lies and deceit, populism can be defined in many ways, but broadly it is this: a style of politics which aims to mobilise the population against a government controlled by an out-of-touch elite who only act in their own best interests – alternatively, a simpler version of populism is simply to support the concerns of ordinary people, or to in some way aim yourself at ordinary people.

When you say ‘I want to fight rising populism’, what you are actually saying is one of: ‘I believe the government is controlled by an elite, and I’m fine with that’; ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as the political class’; or ‘I don’t think the government and political groups should support ordinary people or attempt to appeal to them’. If you agree with one of those statements, then feel free to keep using the word ‘populism’ in your rhetoric, because you are using it correctly. If you find yourself disagreeing with all three of those statements, then unfortunately, you are actually a populist.

The biggest irony of populism is that it is usually used as a negative term by those who mean other people’s populism. As an example, Tony Blair has recently launched an organisation to fight populism. Tony Blair, the man who swept to victory on a platform of mobilising the population against a government he depicted as controlled by an out-of-touch elite who were acting in their own best interests, through a mechanism of supporting the concerns of ordinary people and appealing to their interests. Or as it is commonly phrased, populism.

Another irony is any supporter of Jeremy Corbyn describing populism in a negative way. Populism is Corbyn’s ideology of choice – indeed it is the ideology that has represented the notion of opposition in the West for nearly one hundred years. Yes, it can often be used for negative means, but that is not a reason to bash the concept.

The irony of the Left using the term ‘populism’ in a negative fashion is particularly acute: anyone who has ever used the words ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’ unironically is a populist. People who wish to fight the dominance of the 1% or who believe that government shouldn’t be about decisions being made by powerful elites in backroom deals are populists, plain and simple. Karl Marx was definitely a populist, it is essentially the ideology that founded Left wing ideology, it is the ideology that guides it, and the opposite of populism is supporting a government which is out-of-touch with popular sentiments and doesn’t work in the interests of ordinary people. A Left wing example of a non-populist government might perhaps be the Soviet Union, but then again, the Left would probably argue that wasn’t real socialism, because of course, real socialism is populist.

When the opponents of Donald Trump denounce the fact that his election represented some populist uprising, with their protests which seek to mobilise the population against an executive they see as being an out-of-touch elite acting for themselves, they seem to be unaware of the irony. The Women’s March and the various other protests that have occurred since the inauguration of Trump are textbook examples of populism at work – the reason they are acceptable to those who denounce populism is that they are ‘good’ populists, but that doesn’t hide the fact that they are a populist uprising.

The thing about populism is that most populists don’t self-identify as such, and yet nearly everyone in politics is a populist. A politician who cares about the problems of ordinary people is a populist. A politician who believes that government should follow the will of the people is a populist. A politician who doesn’t believe government should be about an out-of-touch elite making decisions in their own best interests is a populist. Whether they are on the left, the right, or the centre; whether their rosette is purple, red, blue, green, orange, yellow or any other hue, they are a populist.

Like most ideologies, populism can be a force for good, and it can be a force for bad. Like any political era, it remains important in 2017 to stand up and fight for what you believe in. Like anything, it does not make your argument better to use a word you think sounds sinister to mean something you want it to. If you have to insult your opponents, actually use the words that reflect what they are doing – if you believe that they are lying, call them liars, if you believe they are engaging in demagoguery, call them demagogues, but don’t make standing up for the opinions of ordinary people into a negative concept because it suits your personal political agenda.

When you say ‘I am fighting populism’, what you are saying is ‘I support out-of-touch elites ruling over us’. When Seb Dance MEP justifies holding an amusing sign behind Farage by telling us he wants to ‘challenge populism’, what he is saying is he wants to challenge attempts to make government work for the people. That may not be what you mean, but that is why you should use the right words to make your argument. If you wish to protest Trump, that is your right, if you wish to protest Brexit, that is your right, but if you do so by using the wrong words, your argument starts to look much less coherent, and much less convincing.

You probably don’t believe that the best government is one which is run by an out-of-touch elite against the interests of ordinary people, so stop saying you do. Populism doesn’t mean what you think it does, and you probably are a populist.

Dear NUS

Dear NUS,

I’d like to start this open letter by congratulating you on successfully building an organisation out of your echo chamber. For most people, that is merely a pipe-dream, but you have successfully transformed the Twitter feed of a member of the Socialist Party into an organisation of unparalleled incompetence. Whether you are arguing for the abolition of prisons, failing to condemn ISIS, or single-handedly attempting to overthrow the government, you are certainly consistent in leaving your main legacy: a student body largely disengaged with student politics. One of the highlights of 2017 so far has been your attempts to destress our exams by providing light relief in the form of a group representing students at UK universities bickering about the relative merits of Israel-Palestine.

As a student at a Students’ Union outside of the NUS, the motives behind this letter may at first be unclear (not of course, that I expect anyone at the NUS to read it, you’re probably too busy correctly asserting that Donald Trump is not, in fact, your President), but the problem with the NUS affects all students, whether we finance your grandstanding or not.

First off, you do not represent all students. That became abundantly clear last year, when several Students’ Unions decided to depart your organisation, but has also been the case for some considerable length of time: Southampton, St Andrews and Imperial are just three examples. You also do not represent all of the students over whom you govern. Only 731 people voted in the election in which Malia Bouattia became President of the NUS – while we cannot play with turnout in the fashion so often used after general elections to invalid the mandate of the group elected, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume this isn’t a particularly high percentage of your membership, given that your own website boasts of representing over 600 Students’ Unions. Additionally, turnouts for delegate elections seem (from a scan of Google search results) to be generally low, suggesting that you do not in fact represent many students in any real sense.

This is problematic, because your pretence of a monopoly on student opinions, and the fact that due to your position as the ‘National Union of Students’ you have the most recognisable voice, mean that when people look at you, they think that all students are like that, degrading the ability of other student campaigners to lobby the public and politicians successfully.

Secondly, and following on, your very existence makes student politics a joke. There are real, genuine, important student issues to be debating and discussing. Transport, accommodation, education quality. Important issues like equality and diversity, representation of minority groups and international students are vital areas that always need to be looked at and addressed. The problem is, when an organisation that pretends to represent students is busy talking about ISIS and prison systems, that takes time away from its ability to actually represent students, and it makes student politics even more of a joke than it often is already. The truth is, while you say that you exist because no one takes student issues and student politics seriously; no one takes student issues and student politics seriously because you exist.

When students look to their Unions, they want to see them representing them. That means all students. A Union which has representatives who actively talk about overthrowing the Conservative Party does not speak for Conservative students, and breeds on university campuses a mindset in Conservative-backing students that they should keep their heads down and not express the fact that they are Conservatives. The compounding of shy conservatism may not seem like a bad thing to you, but it is – it is a bad thing because it disengages a whole generation of students from participating in student politics and encourages them to adopt a mindset of not admitting what they believe in. That is bad for them, and it is bad for you, as the voice of the Left on student campuses, because if Conservative students won’t argue with you, then you will never be able to convince them of your position because you won’t understand theirs. While your construction of a monumental safe space for your views will be welcomed by yourselves, it just means that more people will be put off politics, and that more Conservatives will drift to a place where they will constantly vote against you, but you won’t know enough about them to convince them back.

Disengagement isn’t just reserved to politically-active students who disagree with you, but it also extends to those who were disinterested in student politics in the first place. Let’s put it like this: if you aren’t interested in politics, are you more likely to become interested by watching quiet debate and discussion which you can engage with, or by watching angry protests and gesture-politics? What all of this disengagement does is weaken your voice and strengthen your echo chamber. It also weakens all of our voices, as a student body, because there are fewer of us willing and able to stand up and fight for students.

Equally, your latest hair-brained scheme is to thwart the government by boycotting the NSS. As a student at a university which will not be boycotting it, I have a natural inclination to welcome this particular policy, as the likelihood is that my university will shoot up the league tables, but this is a policy which is deeply damaging for current and future students, and shows a level of muddled reactionary thinking which is (even by your own standards) deeply misguided. If students don’t fill in the NSS, then the value of their degree programme goes down, by simple merit of decreasing its position in the rankings. Additionally, the value of the degrees done by second and first years decreases, because the NSS is used by universities to make vital improvements to the way in which courses and programmes are delivered – failing to provide that feedback means you are inflicting second year students with existing problems in degrees. Finally, you are robbing future students of an opportunity to accurately assess their university options. As a body that claims to be for students, you are acting against them in this. Not only that, but it is amusingly ironic as an action. You don’t wish for the government to increase the cost of courses, so you are boycotting the NSS and thus decreasing the value of them instead – with either policy the cost per unit of the course goes up, you just feel better if it is the latter case.

If you want to overthrow the Tories, NUS, then set up a political party. If you want to abolish prisons, or not condemn ISIS, or have schisms involving Mossad, then please do them in your own time – I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be engaging in your politics, I’m asking you not to do it in the name of all students. As a student who is not in the NUS, I ask you not to degrade my ability to make a difference.

Stick to what you do best, facilitating grassroots campaigns and providing people with cheaper stuff. Leave the politics to the students.