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Europe: The Final Countdown

A Points-Based Immigration System Is a Weird Idea of Freedom

The suggestion shows how dark the EU referendum debate has become.
June 3, 2016, 12:00am

Iranian asylum seekers who were caught in Indonesian waters while sailing to Australia, sit on a boat, at Benoa port in Bali, Indonesia, on 12th May 2-13 (Photo by Firdia Lisnawati / AP)

Freedom is a strange thing. In Britain, we are a nominally free people; free to do whatever we want, eat whatever we want, say whatever we want, and live however we want, and what do we do with it? We spend all our free time looking at computers, eat Quavers by the greasy fistful, say "legend" about idiots, and live in something that isn't quite misery, not keen or close enough for actual unhappiness, that for all its endless deprivations could almost be confused for comfort, except for that wordless worry late at night that lets us know that all this is stupid, it's worthless and we should be doing something else. It's almost as if being free doesn't actually do anything. You can see it in our endless, awful Brexit debate: leaving the EU would give the country more independence, more opportunity to set its own national course, more freedom. Which is true, it would. But what would a country that spends most of its time in its underwear, online, and eating Quavers actually do with that freedom?

Now, we have part of an answer. The Cerebus-headed monstrosity of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel have announced that if Britain chooses to leave the European Union, it will introduce an "Australian-style points system" for migrants and require all new entrants to speak good English. This is presented as a natural consequence of any Leave vote, which should be alarming. That Brexit movie didn't even mention migration once; for months now the Brexiters have been trying to convince us that really it's all about leaving one cloistered continent and opening ourselves up to the whole world, becoming a truly global force, modern and democratic and lit by a kinder, brighter sun – but in the end, it turns out that it was all just about not having to hear foreign languages on the train. We don't need the stifling, bloodless, bean-counting quantitative Brussels bureaucracy; we can introduce a stifling, bloodless, bean-counting quantitative bureaucracy all by ourselves (in fact we already have done for non-EU migrants). After all, what three words conjure up an image of untrammelled human liberty more than "points-based system"?


It's not racist to want a points-based migration system, although you'll notice that nobody ever has to append the 'it's not racist' insistence to things like enjoying a meal with friends or bathing regularly. Similarly, whether it's beer, footwear, or government policy, the phrase "Australian-style" is rarely good news. The points system has been Ukip's official policy for a while now, and its proponents will occasionally defend it by reference to our eccentric upside-down cousins. "Having controls on immigrations isn't racist," they say. "You don't think Australia is racist, do you?" Well, do you?

In fairness, I've never been to Australia; in fact I'm occasionally suspicious that the whole country was made up by some sinister cabal as a test of our gullibility, to see if we'd really accept the idea of a country where there's an awards show called 'the Logies' and the prime minister eats raw, unpeeled onions on camera. But if it exists, then Australia is a country founded on an almost total genocide, in which settlers killed every last living person in Tasmania, and which under the "White Australia Policy" forbade all migration from non-European countries until 1973. This history clashes with the anti-immigration orthodoxies a bit; it's much harder to say "it isn't racist to systematically exterminate an entire continent of its indigenous population" or "it isn't racist to discriminate based on race", although some people would probably give it a shot. But anyway, all that is in the past now.


Except Australia's more recent record is also pretty harrowing. The country maintains a detention centre on the Papuan island of Manus, where refugees and asylum seekers attempting to enter Australia are held indefinitely. The government's stated intention is to resettle the refugees in a third country, but as of last year more have been killed by disease or riots than have been allowed to move on elsewhere. Conditions in Manus are so intolerable that last December 600 refugees, exhausted by their tropical purgatory, signed a letter to the Australian government begging to be allowed to die.

The slow and ongoing tragedy in Manus is not an inevitable consequence of any points-based system. But something like it is likely to result when a government that fundamentally does not value human life, that sees a living person as nothing more that a collection of interchangeable numbers, is allowed to do whatever it wants. A government like Australia's. A government like ours.

Or one like Europe's. We shouldn't romanticise the EU here; its own migration policy has thousands dying in the Mediterranean every year. This is what makes the Brexit debate so frustrating for those of us who despise the European bureaucracy, but also don't want to see more people left to die slowly in a detention centre or quickly in the middle of the sea. An out vote could be a chance for us to actually think about our national priorities, who we want to be in the world and what we want to do. Instead the freedom offered to us is just a more locally-administered form of cruelty. Brussels or Brisbane; make your choice. It's the last choice you'll ever make.


For a while there were some voices on the left arguing for a "progressive Brexit." It's more muted now: we can see how the referendum's become a clash of competing Toryisms, we can see what a nightmare a truly independent Britain might become. But it didn't have to be this way. Journalists love to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of acting more like an embattled protester than a real Leader of the Opposition; here they might have a point. Corbyn is, most likely, privately sympathetic towards Brexit and deeply suspicious of the EU; like many of us, he put that aside and campaigned for a Remain vote once he saw the contours the debate was taking. But he's not like the rest of us; however unpopular he might be among his MPs, he has the power to not just comment on the intellectual landscape but actually rearrange it. If he'd spoken his mind and made a case for a true internationalism beyond the EU, the likes of Gove and Johnson would not have been able to so confidently assume that their victory would be a victory for the forces of misery. We really could have had the chance to be something else. That's gone now. In the end, a vote to leave has become a pure no, an abstract negation, something that – just ask Greece – always cycles back to take the form of the thing it denied. Because in the end, we're all stuck here, perfectly free in our pants, with our Quavers, afraid of what we might become.


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