Anti-immigrant attitudes could be undoing of the United Kingdom

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Many of the Brexiteers voted ‘Leave’ over immigration, but few in the U.K.—and Canada—seem to understand how vital immigration is for economic growth.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on September 2, 2019.

OTTAWA—Brexiteer Boris Johnson is taking his country to the brink.

Parliamentary chaos, left in his wake, is a reminder to all of us that governments matter.

British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg characterizes the current mess as “the most divisive years” in the history of his homeland. Bragg compared last week’s hasty prorogation to the work of the last proroguer, King Charles the First, who was ultimately beheaded.

“Consensus is further away than any time I can remember,” bemoaned Bragg in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview.

Brits are getting a bird’s eye view of the importance of government.

Johnson is pledging to leave the European Union on Halloween, whether or not his country has been able to negotiate an exit agreement. He may not succeed in prorogation, as senior members of his own inner circle have resigned in protest. But the self-imposed, drop-dead departure date of Oct. 31 is sure to throw the United Kingdom into deeper crisis.

The whole exercise is a glaring example of how not to operate in a democracy. The country is split right down the middle between Leavers and Remainers. The financial centre of London is overwhelmingly opposed to the decision, while most other parts of the country are slightly in favour.

The initial referendum was launched by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a way of shutting down internal Conservative opposition to the country’s increasing integration with the rest of Europe. Cameron made a foolish miscalculation on the matter, setting the benchmark for referendum victory at a simple majority. His country is now reaping the results of this ill-advised decision.

The younger the voter, the more likely they are to want to remain in the European Union. Conversely, older citizens, who remember the days before the United Kingdom joined the European Union back in 1973, are more likely to want to leave. Polling shows a strong correlation between age and a desire to exit the union. The majority of older people hold the view that European membership has deprived Britain of the power to control immigration. Younger pro-Europe voters believe immigration has made the country a more vibrant place and assisted economic growth, in complete contrast to their older counterparts.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, one thing is certain: the importance of governments in planning for the long-term future has never been clearer.

Liberals took a beating in Canada when we asked the courts to establish a clear path forward in the event of another referendum on separation. The courts confirmed that separation approval would require a clear question supported by a clear majority. This principle was enshrined in the Clarity Act. A similar British law would have ensured that any decision to leave the European Union would have required a clear majority. The only thing clear today is that the country is split in half.

If the United Kingdom does exit with no deal, Scotland and Northern Ireland will quickly be knocking at Europe’s door to get back in. One country ends and another begins. The notion of a painless exit from the European Union is a pipe dream that not even Johnson will be able achieve.

Confusion belies a bigger question. Modern Canadian Conservatives claim that less government is better. They are positioning the upcoming federal election as a fight between over-governing Liberals and the party that wants to keep government out of your pocketbook and your life.

Libertarians like Maxime Bernier go even further. They believe the job of government is to get out of the way so the private sector can have free rein over the economy.

Most of us understand very little about how immigration policy and economic development go hand in hand. As Canadians have fewer children, the only way the country can meet workforce demand is by increasing immigration. Bernier’s plan to cut those numbers by more than a half is not only bad politics, it is bad economics, especially in struggling regions of the country. With an aging population, we need more young people to replenish the retiring workforce.

But the older we grow, the less we seem to understand or welcome the integration of immigrants and diverse populations into Canadian communities. Immigrants are key to revitalizing Canada’s flagging rural economies. They bring families, spending power, and entrepreneurial talent.

It is no surprise that British younger people welcome immigrant diversity as an economic asset. Their world has been turned upside-down by a generation that will not be around to bear the pain of Brexit madness.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.