Heaven knows I'm miserable now

It may already be too late.

I have a dreadful sense that, even if Brexit is stopped, it is already too late. The underlying trajectory of innumerable decisions about the future has already changed.  And, as in all cases where a great system changes direction, most of what happens is small and cumulative, not big and headline-grabbing.

So, yes, it’s symbolic that the EMA will be moving from London to Amsterdam, taking hundreds of skilled and valuable citizens – together with their families, their money, their energy and the futures they might have made in Britain.

But it’s the latest immigration figures that hint at the deeper, tectonic story: thousands upon thousands of people deciding that Britain is not for them.

I know some of these people.  One friend has already moved to Milan, another to New Zealand, a third is planning for Berlin.  They are people of promise, with young families and bright futures who will no longer build a more enlightened and prosperous Britain.  They have not made ‘economic’ decisions: they have made ‘cultural’ decisions.  They have thought hard about the kind of world they want for their children, the kind of life they want for their children, and they’ve reached a brutal conclusion – it won’t be available in Britain.

Businesses are making similar decisions.  Work that last year passed through London is now going via their office in Brussels, or Dublin, or Frankfurt.  No need to do anything dramatic, just make some modest shifts on a contingency basis.  Two or three jobs that might have been in London or Bristol or Edinburgh are now – or will be soon - somewhere else.  A meeting that might have been in Birmingham or Manchester is now in Madrid or Milan.  A supplier that might previously have been in Ipswich or Basingstoke or Chester is now in Copenhagen or Lyons or Utrecht.

And with each little instance, a little more momentum: after those first two or three meetings, and a new supplier, it will be time to set up a small office nearby, and a couple more people will move from Ipswich to Utrecht.

It’s like ‘inward investment’ in reverse.  It was always a bit pointless try to lure big inward investment projects: it was a relic of a previous economic model.  In the days of big factories, it might just have made sense to spend large sums of public money attempting to persuade internationally mobile investors to set up camp on our island (though, even then, it was always disproportionate).  A giant car plant is, self-evidently, a major investment decision, and it’s going to have to go somewhere, and places where it might go could reasonably compete with one another.

You can’t, after all, build a tiny little car plant and see how it goes.

But that is what you can do in the financial, business, cultural, media, information, computer, retail and related service sectors i.e. all the sectors that these days dominate our economy.  You set up a tiny little pilot office (or shop) to start with, and see how it goes.  Do your people like it?  Are you winning good business?  Are the opportunities looking good?  If yes, yes and yes – move to bigger premises, ship in a few people from your existing operations and recruit a few locals.  Up and running.

No headlines, no flamboyance.  New networks are built, a new eco-system grows, a mutually-reinforcing pattern of people and investment and opportunities.  (And not just ‘economic’ opportunities – this isn’t just about ‘growth’ – but social opportunities, educational opportunities, cultural opportunities, opportunities to expand the mind, to encourage the imagination, to envisage new futures.)  That’s how it works.  That’s what a modern, open, dynamic society consists of.

And ditto in reverse.  It leeches away, slowly, one person, one business, one grain at a time.

Who leaves?  Well, that too is always the same – and it’s the same as those that once arrived: it’s the bright, the ambitious, the creative, the energetic, the entrepreneurial.  This is one of the greatest tragedies of Brexit.  I can’t prove it, but the hundreds of thousands that moved to Britain over the past two or three decades (and possibly longer) did so because they thought they could build a better life – for them, and their children – in this country.  And in pursuit of that better life, they worked hard, and saved, and invested, and inculcated ambition in their children.

I testify this as the son of an immigrant, as the son of a mother who worked as a cleaner, a dinner lady, a skivvy in a residential home for the elderly and who hoped that, through hard-work and an education, things would be better for her children.

I testify this on the basis of my 15 years as chair of governors in an inner city school in London, where the sense of dynamism, of achievement, of progress – of being the laboratory where an open, inclusive, pluralist, enlightened twenty first century was being forged – came overwhelmingly from the energy of innumerable in-migrants.

I testify this on the basis of thirty years of economic study and research into the local economies and labour markets of the UK.

And, drawing on the same body of experience, I know too the nature of momentum in these things.  People don’t make these kinds of decisions on a whim.  It’s slow, deep stuff, based on multiple factors, but mainly the ‘feel’ of it.  It’s always a risk – to move to a new country, to set up a business, to invest in a new technique or supply chain – and no matter how many times you count the pennies or re-run the spreadsheet, all too often and in the end it comes down to ‘gut feel’.

If that’s right, then try to imagine a Britain in 2020 where, by some miracle, there has been a second referendum and the catastrophe of Brexit has been averted.

You think that, suddenly, tens upon hundreds of thousands of personal and family and business decisions will simply revert to what they might otherwise have been?  Of course not.  These things have momentum.  The feeling of being unwelcome will not go away.  The feeling of a country ill-at-ease with itself will not go away.  The opportunities that will by then have become evident in Milan and Utrecht and Lyons and Copenhagen will not go away.  The sense that Britain is an insular, unreliable, crotchety, arrogant place will not go away.

The antecedents for all this go back a long way of course.  It’s possible that the idea of Britain as a welcoming, progressive and friendly nation was always a bit of a myth.  This whole Brexit fuck-up is merely the exposure of what this place is really like.  (From that sort of perspective, all of this is probably just the final phase of ‘end of empire’ in which we have to get used, finally, to being (at best) just plain ordinary and (at worst) just plain awful.)

Either way, and as I said at the beginning – it’s probably already too late. Look upon these works, ye mighty, and despair.


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