Losing freedom of movement will rob current and future generations of so much their parents took for granted.
Monday marked another step in the robbing of the millions of Britons of the rights that they were born with and the removal of rights for future generations.
The Immigration Bill is in the committee stage in the House of Lords, and this is a key step by which freedom of movement for Britons and to Britain ends.
Much of the national debate about the end of the Brexit transition period is now focused on trade. With the media and political interest – as usual – on “the economy”, rather than freedom and the quality of people’s lives, that’s unsurprising.
And given what’s at stake is the inevitable introduction on January 1 of significant new barriers to what is now 47% of our trade, as well as the security of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, and the international community’s trust in the UK as a negotiating partner that will stick to its agreements, that current focus isn’t unreasonable.
But I believe that we should not allow the destruction of rights and freedoms for Britons -that is the loss of freedom of movement – to pass unmarked.
Which is why I have put down a simple amendment, that “Clause 1 not stand part of the Bill”.
As I did that, I was thinking back a couple of years, to a rally in the centre of Brussels, held in ankle-deep snow, where I heard lots of Britons who’d come from across the Continent talk about how freedom of movement had changed their lives.
Particularly I think of a woman who, when young, had upped sticks when her life in the UK hadn’t worked out, moved to several European countries, built a couple of different careers, made a full, interesting, varied life for herself.
She came from a very poor area of England, and from a family with few financial resources. But she’d bought a cheap coach ticket, shifted across a continent, and found opportunities, interesting experiences and a comfortable place for herself.
The wealthy have always been able to do this, and no doubt will always be able to do this.
Many an aristocrat set out on the Grand Tour and by choice never came home. Many a “black sheep” of a wealthy family snuck off to the Continent and rebuilt their life away from scandal.
What the arrival of freedom of movement meant was the chance for everybody to exercise that freedom, to seek the opportunities, the experiences, the enhancement of life that change can bring. The chance to learn a meet new and different people, learn a new language and culture, find a different environment and a different way of life.
Making that opportunity available to all was a huge step to balance inequality – and now it is being wiped out and all of our lives are much the poorer.
And it was a safety net. British builders escaping the deprivations of the Seventies in Germany became a stereotype, but it was also a fact. In our shock-ridden, insecure and unstable world, how vital might that right be in the future?
Now I don’t, in fact, have the power to simply restore that movement right for Britons. That right is granted by other states under EU membership, which we have now lost, and all of those rights will go when we end the transition period at the end of this year.
These are rights, incidentally, that quite a number of members of the House of Lords have availed themselves of – freedom of movement exercised before the end of December will continue.
At least it will unless, by tearing up the Withdrawal Agreement (signed just eight months ago) as was being threatened yesterday, Boris Johnson puts into question the rights of the 1.3 million Britons who thought they had secured them through their existing residence in the EU.
What the amendment I’m tabling does is to keep the rights of citizens from EU states in the UK. But the principle of reciprocation is strong, and we could in accepting these rights expect that reciprocation.
Moving countries is something that many people will never consider. And my aim will always be for a world where no one is forced to leave their home – be it by poverty, war, climate or other environmental crisis.
But there are always people for whom this is an exciting idea, or those for whom the possibility of escape to a different way of life is attractive, or for whom the possibility of a fresh start or a start that they cannot find in their birthplace is essential.
I admit, I feel this particularly personally, because it is what I did myself. I never felt particularly comfortable in Australia. I disliked many aspects of the culture, so – having financial and cultural resources and the convenient history of a grandmother born in the UK – I was able to move around the world.
I’ve always been acutely aware of the privileges that allowed me to do that and wanted to see them extended to as many people as possible. Yet what we are doing now in ending free movement is greatly retrenching those possibilities.
And we’re also of course denying ourselves the talents, the skills, and the energy of people from across the Continent, who without free movement will not have the same opportunities their elders enjoyed – and I’m sorry about that too.
But when young British people ask me “what did you do to keep our freedoms and opportunities?” I will be able to say, I did my best to defend them.
And yesterday in the House I gave its members warning that I’ll be putting that question firmly on the table when we get to the next stage of voting on the Bill.
If they agree that young people should not have fewer freedoms and opportunities than their parents, then I’ll ask them to back my amendment.
Natalie Bennett is a Contributing Editor of Left Foot Forward, a former leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a member of the House of Lords.
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