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As Britain puts up the barriers, will the snowflakes turn into steel?

September 7, 2017

Wednesday’s leak of a policy paper detailing the UK’s post-Brexit immigration proposals have provided a field day for newspapers of every political persuasion. As an opponent of Brexit, I’m always willing to think the worst of the incompetents who run our country, but on this occasion I think it fair to point out we’re not looking at a done deal. It’s a paper, and it’s far from set in concrete. It seems to have been written, however, by people who do not see that immigration is only part of the national ecosystem. That would be the Home Office then.

As for the content, some bits would appear to have been plucked from Saudi Arabia, others from Singapore. Neither countries are particularly analogous with Britain. At some stage I may well write a critique, but probably not until the paper is actually published. Simon Preston’s comments on the proposals in the Guardian, though, pretty well reflect my view thus far. Whatever mangled version is finally imposed on us, my thoughts keep coming back to those who will have to live with the consequences – especially the young.

A couple of days ago I wrote In Defence of Snowflakes, about the millennial generation in the UK and the United States being unfairly accused – among other things – of lacking resilience. My basic argument was test them, and they’ll step up.

There are many similarities between the culture and societies in which the young of both nations are growing up. A common language is one of them. But there are so many differences that one can only go so far in making observations – as I did yesterday – that apply to each. The biggest divergence is that the US has the most powerful economy in the world, the most powerful military and the most enemies. We, on the other hand, have an economy owned primarily by foreign interests, a vanishing military still clinging on to a few nukes, and we’re making new enemies close to home by the day without the power to deal with them.

As things stand, with the nation tumbling into political chaos on the brink of Brexit, we in Britain are a busted flush, you might think. The Americans have a reasonable chance of flushing away their busted Trump. We, unfortunately, would appear to have no trumps left.

For different reasons, in both nations the millennials and the generation following them are going to need some resilience. In spades.

But for the moment, I’m going to leave the youth of America to their own devices and focus on the outlook for my own country’s young people.

Here’s a positive scenario. We get through the temporary economic blip of Brexit. We do loads of trade deals. There’s more demand for British goods and services. Our university system is tweaked to make it easier for kids to study the subjects that the government thinks will be useful to the country – IT, science, medicine, engineering, and harder for them to choose subjects that have no obvious purpose other than arts for art’s sake – English, Classics, philosophy, theology, history.

A thousand small businesses spring up, inventing things, disrupting, employing fresh young graduates. Apprentice schemes offer a decent alternative to those who have practical skills. Wages rise, tax receipts rise, and there’s more money to invest in the National Health Service, housing, education and the military. Where skills shortages exist, such as in the fruit orchards and the beet fields, the government allows us to import cheap foreign labour from the EU. Zero-hours contracts slowly peter out, because employer have the confidence to hire full-time staff.

Slowly but surely, living standards rise again, and we ask ourselves why we didn’t we leave the EU years ago.

Now for the negative. Recognising the reality of its weak negotiating position, the government caves into most of the EU’s demands. We have a hard Brexit – no membership of the single market or customs union. There are no quick trade deals, and those that are concluded are not in our favour, because those with whom we negotiate realise that we need them more than they need us. The huge financial settlement we are obliged to pay the EU negates any benefit from leaving for at least five years. Many foreign-owned businesses close their offices and factories, and move to Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin.

Scientific cooperation with EU academic institutions declines dramatically. Foreign academics have no desire to come to Britain, because our major universities are no longer recognised as primary centres for international research.

The economy tanks. New measures to restrict the flow of immigration are irrelevant, because unemployment rises steeply. Who wants to live in a country with no jobs?

There’s no new money for the NHS. Demand for health services declines as the flight of EU citizens lessens the load. As wages stagnate, the number of British nurses actually increases, since a poorly-paid job is better than no job. But no funds are available for upgrading facilities, treatment and infrastructure. You want decent cancer treatment? Get private health, if you can afford it.

There’s no new money for schools. Apprentice schemes wither on the vine. Universities, deprived of their lifeblood of foreign students, begin to go out of business, starting with the former polytechnics. Companies cut their training budgets, as they always do when times are hard.

The housing market tanks, which means that the wealthier baby boomers can no longer rely on the value of their homes to pay for their care, and have less to leave to their children and grandchildren, who sorely need a helping hand to buy their own homes and escape the grind of “just enough, but no more”.

The divide widens between those with “proper jobs”, who have graduated from “proper universities”, and those who drift into employment because they have to rather than want to. As does the consequent gap between rich and poor.

A sense of impoverishment, disappointment and bitterness is pervasive. Social unrest grows, as does political extremism at both ends of the spectrum. Need a scapegoat? Pick on the minorities.

Which of these scenarios we believe will comes to pass depends on where we stand on the Brexit divide. The actual outcome may not be as rosy as the first scenario, or as grim as the second. It may be even worse, especially if Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un decide to redefine the most common meaning of the word boom. Should that be the case, the resulting catastrophe might be enough to allow our more sensible politicians to pull out of Brexit without losing face. A global disaster is no time to be sailing merrily out of port on an unknown journey.

But come what may, we are going to be relying on those currently in their second and third decades to run with the opportunities or to pick up the pieces. Either way, resilience will be at a premium.

One final thought. As I write this, I’m reading an extraordinary book that provides a context from recent history. In The Unwomanly Face of War, Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexeivich tells stories collated from interviews with hundreds of women who served in the Soviet military during World War 2. She talks to pilots, machine gunners, snipers, medics and partisans. The tales of courage, suffering and deprivation related by women  – many of them teenagers – who fought at the front alongside the men – are awe-inspiring. They were snowflakes turned into steel. Sometimes we underestimate the young.

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