Alex Massie

Boris Johnson asks voters to decide if he’s a fool or just a cynic. What a choice!

Boris Johnson asks voters to decide if he's a fool or just a cynic. What a choice!
Text settings

Boris is at it again this morning. Revealing, that is, why he cannot be trusted with office. To be charitable, I wouldn't trust many newspaper columnists with the keys to power.  But, of course, most Grub Street residents have no interest in being crowned Emperor. Boris does. Which is why his columns for the Daily Telegraph are so troublesome.

You will remember the recent occasion when he suggested the burden of proof in criminal trials be reversed. That was revealing, but in a bad way. So is today's column in which he proposes setting quotas for immigrants from other EU countries.

As is so often the case you are left to wonder which is worse: Boris meaning this or Boris not meaning this but writing it anyway. Neither answer is reassuring. The former would indicate a profound foolishness; the latter a deep cynicism. What larks.

It is, in any case, a crackpot notion not least since it undermines, indeed demolishes, one of the EU's central achievements: the free movement of people's throughout the continent. It cannot be stated too frequently that dissolving borders within the EU has been the greatest advance in european liberty since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The freedom to move and make your fortune or pursue your dreams in any other EU-member state is not just fundamental to the "european project" but, also, rather significantly, pretty important for the pursuit of human happiness.

Perhaps someone should ask Boris if, given his apparent endorsement of quotas for foreigners in this country, other european states - Spain, France and so on - should be permitted to introduce quotas for Britons seeking to live in their countries. At least a million - and possibly close to twice that - Britons live in other european countries. Should their numbers be limited? And if not, why not? What is the difference between a Briton living on the Costa Brava and a Latvian living in Lewisham?

Moreover, once you start start placing quotas on the free movement of peoples (which, it should be said, is rather different from imposing transitional controls on the peoples of newly-minted EU member states) then where does it stop? What price a single market then? If Britain can protect [sic] its border in this fashion, why shouldn't other countries impose quotas on goods and services and capital that this country exports to other parts of the EU? What's the difference? If one country can rip up the rules, why can't others?

I doubt it would be possible to impose these kinds of quotas without flouting EU law. Which in turn means that this sort of thing is a nudge and a nod and a wink to the Better Off Out brigade. Perhaps Boris wants to join their number; if so then he should have the courage and honesty and decency to say so.

Because otherwise he's contributing to the very factors that have helped Ukip dominate the political discussion in recent weeks: politicians hinting they support policies they know cannot be delivered. Tory Man Speak With Forked Tongue; Labour Man Too. If politicians delude voters they should not be surprised when voters are unhappy once the deception is revealed as the nonsense it always was.

Who could have guessed that given the choice between politicians hinting that, golly, Ukip have a point and a party - Ukip - saying, hell yeah, of course we have a point many voters will choose the real thing over the hinted thing? Oh. Pandering to the beast and appeasing the beast only feeds the beast. This is elementary. And, for what little it may be worth, stupid.

I don't know if Boris even means what he says he means. After all, he trumpets that Britain is now the America of the EU; the place people want to come; the magnet for the hordes at Calais. ('Huddled masses' would have been better than 'hordes' but let's allow that to pass.) I suspect Boris welcomes this and thinks it a good thing. Which makes it all the stranger that he should wish to impose measures that would diminish Britain. It would be as if - in the context of a single labour market - Texas decided to impose quotas on Pennsylvanians or Californians. Shorter Boris: This stuff is great, let's have less of it. 

Boris says it's not about race. Just about 'control'. There is, I am sure, something to this. Most immigration restrictionists (non-Ukip division) are canny enough to frame their argument in terms of pressure on local services and the impact of new arrivals on local labour markets. This, I suppose, is a modest step forward. But it is still illogical.

Suppose, just for the sake of argument, Clacton in Essex or Boston in Lincolnshire were suddenly 'swamped' by several thousand new residents descending - as hordes always do - from the frozen, low-waged, northlands of, say, County Durham or Renfrewshire? The 'pressure' on local services and the local labour market would be precisely the same as if those new residents had arrived from Silesia or Moravia. So should there be quotas on internal migration too? And if not, why not? What's the difference?

We have, after all, a single labor market in this country and that labour market is in turn a subset of the larger european labour market. In both instances the larger the market the greater the freedom.

You can spare us the 'social cohesion' claptrap too: does anyone really think the fabric of British society is rent asunder by the presence of Polish catholics? And if - by some mysterious means it is - why does no-one object to the presence of so many French citizens in this country? If Old Europe is welcome, why isn't New Europe?

Perhaps Boris - and those who agree with him - really does believe in this stuff. Perhaps they really do wish to return to a time when european citizens were less free than they are today. If so, however, he should say so. And he should admit that his inclination to limit the freedoms of other europeans means that, logically, he's quite happy to limit the freedoms of Britons too.

So I'm not sure which is worse: Boris believes in all this or Boris doesn't believe in it at all but just wants you to think he kinda might. Neither conclusion does him any credit. Oh happy day.