The reason why the UK works as a country and the EU doesn’t work is fundamentally linguistic. Lots of people from Scotland live and work happily in other parts of the UK. We have all likewise met people from England, Wales and Northern Ireland who have moved to Scotland without any difficulty. Most of us could do more or less the same job anywhere else in the UK. We could go to the same sort of shops and pubs. We wouldn’t find it difficult to make new friends or perhaps even find a wife or a husband. There are only small differences between the various parts of the UK. It would be easy to adapt to a move.
It is this that above all defines what a successful nation state is. Australians, Americans and Japanese can all likewise move about their own countries with ease. It is for this reason too that they all have a single currency that works well. If one part of Japan suffers from a natural disaster, other Japanese people are happy for their taxes to be used to help. If one part of Australia suffers from recession people can easily move to another part where there are jobs. The reason for this is that the citizens of each of these countries have a common identity that has been forged by history and by the fact that they are similar. It is this that the EU lacks.
Few of us could move to another European country with ease and do exactly the same job that we do now. A British doctor could not easily move to Italy and begin treating patients from day one. A British teacher could not get a job in a French state school and begin teaching history. The reason is obvious: language. Even if a teacher spoke perfect French, he would still have to learn the French curriculum. Even if a doctor spoke very good Italian, he’d still have to learn the Italian words for medical terms, the variants of Italian spoken by his patients and how the health service in Italy worked.
For most Brits therefore working in the EU has involved either doing a job that is at such a high level that English can be used or working at such a low level that only rudimentary foreign language skills are required. The vast majority of Brits living in the EU are doing so because they want to live somewhere warmer, not because they do a job that involves speaking a foreign language.
It is for this reason that membership of the EU has always been a bit of a one way street. Thousands of EU students come to Scotland and at the moment get free tuition. How many Scots study in Slovenia or Greece? Hundreds of thousands of French people work in London. How many Brits work in Paris? While Latvians in Britain can claim child benefit for their kids in Latvia, those few Brits who moved to Latvia would find that the Latvian state would not be nearly as generous.
Why can EU citizens easily move to Britain while it is hard for us to move to their country? The answer again is language. Is it that Europeans are better at learning foreign languages than the Brits? Perhaps they are, but it has more to do with the fact that they are all learning one foreign language, English. If we wanted to live in the whole of the EU we would have to learn 24. There is no language that a British child can learn that will be useful in more than two or three EU countries. Almost no-one speaks French in Poland. German is not well understood in Greece or Spain.
The fact that we all speak English in the UK is a benefit to each of us and to our economy, but it also has a downside. The second language of the whole world is English and this means that millions of them would love to live and work in a country that speaks English.
It is for this reason that the EU has never been a particularly good deal for the UK. In order to maintain our character of being a nation state, we need to maintain the fact that British citizens can move anywhere in the UK and still feel that they are in Britain. If any part of Britain begins to feel linguistically or culturally alien, if it were to become difficult for me to move to another British town because the people living there were not much like me, then the bonds that unite us all would begin to sever.
The EU facilitated the mass movement of EU citizens to Britain. This was largely one way traffic. There have of course been benefits to the British economy. We have needed many of these workers. But it has also meant that it has become much harder for low skilled British people to compete. Near where I live there is a fish factory. Twenty years ago the only people working there were Scots. Now the only people working there are Eastern Europeans. It would be difficult for a British person to get a job in this factory, because the common language used is Eastern European. What do the Scots who might have worked in this factory do now?
We will probably still welcome many people from the EU after Brexit. They usually integrate very well and within a generation will be indistinguishable from other Brits, but it would be far better if were able to choose who and how many could come here.
The greater one way traffic that the EU has facilitated however is from people living outside the EU. How many Brits choose to live and work in Sudan? How many decide to retire to Syria? So there is nothing reciprocal at all about the mass movement of people from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean and still less from further afield. What is peculiar also is that just as it would be relatively easy for me to move to Australia because I speak the same language, it would be far easier for people from this region to move to another country where they can easily make themselves understood. But they prefer to live in the EU. It’s impossible to live anywhere else. Moreover, they know that once they set foot in the EU, it will probably be just a matter of time before they gain either citizenship or the right to remain in the EU. Once they have this they can move anywhere they please. Naturally they would like to go somewhere where there are lots of other people like them and where they can use the English they learned in school.
So long as the UK has to follow EU law, so long as we are constrained by the rights that the EU confers on anyone entering the EU whether legally or illegally, we will be unable to decide who lives in the UK. Brexiteers realised that we were losing control of our country. Parts of Britain were becoming unrecognisable from even a few years earlier. So long as we remained in the EU there was nothing that could be done. This is why UK law must be supreme and why Parliament must be able to decide who has the right to come to Britain, and who has the right to stay.
There is so much negativity about Brexit. We must not lose sight of the benefits. Most Brits are fair minded, but we want two-way traffic and mutual benefit rather than feeling that we are being taken advantage of. The EU wants our money but doesn’t much want to cooperate. It wants us to continue to defend them, but would still like to punish us for daring to leave. We can do better.
I would far rather have a reciprocal arrangement with Canada, Australia, New Zealand and perhaps even the USA. We all speak the same language. We could all easily live and work in each other’s countries. We all have more or less the same kind of law, the same ideas about democracy and freedom. Wouldn’t it be better to deepen the relationship with those with whom we have something in common rather than those we merely live next door to? At least it wouldn’t be a one way street.