But in a recession, when Brits start to compete with the 6.2m immigrants for these jobs, then it hits the fan. There is a basic political formula that works world over: mass unemployment + mass immigration = political explosion. Brown will have known this, known there was an unexploded bomb buried in his economic model and that, when the economic tide went out, there might be real controversy over immigration. Then, a slogan like "British Jobs for British Workers" would have deep resonance. I suggest in my News of the World column today that he claimed it himself, before it was used against him.
It was all, now, a terrible miscalculation. Like all Brown's errors, he got ahead of himself in a desire to shaft the Tories - saying “British Jobs for British Workers” (as he first did in Jun07) was designed to make him sounder harder on immigration than Cameron. Not difficult, as even now the Tories daren't raise the topic. But how was Brown going to deliver? He didn’t quite think he’d be asked to. It is an old political trick – to develop a soundbite, intended to disguise a lack of policy. But under EU law there can only be EU workers - he can't help British workers, at the expense of the other EU nationals living here. When the National Front first came out with this slogan in 1974 it was at least enforceable. But Brown’s version was not. It was all a chimera, designed to spin the media. But spinning the public is harder. Spinning these workers in the refinery, who can see the Portuguese and Spanish parachuted in, is impossible.
Social strife always accompanies unemployment, and we’d best brace ourselves for some because Britain will have the worst upswing in unemployment in the developed world this year. The claimant count may double to 2.2m - and that's on top of the 4m odd who are not categorised as unemployed. In cities like Glasgow and Liverpool, a third could be on the dole. You simply don't get economic convulsions like this without social dislocation, and it could start at any time. These 19 refinery protests may peter out. Or they could mushroom into the kind of recession rage we've seen in Athens, Dublin, Reykjavik and Moscow.
The conditions for recession rage in Britain are all there. Layoffs are increasing at 1,650 a day - and the people worried now are skilled workers, who don't believe what Gordon Brown tells them. Nor should they: the Prime Minister is unable to level with the public about the recession, just as Blair was unable to level with them about the war. If Brown attempts to tell them not to be so xenophobic, or bangs on about his points based system (that only affects non-EU immigrants), then all his detractors need do is point to the PM's "British jobs" slogan and that 81 percent figure mentioned above. Indeed, that 81 percent figure is from the Statistics Commission in December 2007 - now, it's probably closer to 90%. Strip out pensioners and the public sector, and there are fewer Brits in work now than in 1997.
That doesn't mean it will kick off: while the French protest at the drop of a hat, we're an incredibly well mannered country and tend not to. But we have had ten years of a government that used a boom to rely on highly motivated immigrants - when it should have been retraining the 5.1m on benefits. This isn't to detract from the economic and cultural benefits of immigration. But we should ask: why did they come at rate of 1,500 a day? Because they have been sucked here by a welfare-created vacuum in the UK labour market.
Whatever the technicalities of the refinery contract, the idea that you're losing your job because of competition from cheaper foreign labour will be widespread. It simply has to be addressed: the public are mature enough to have this debate, even if Westminster is scared of it. And if this issue is not addressed, or deemed out of bounds because of EU rules, then the BNP will be only too happy to get stuck in - especially ahead of the local elections in June.
This is one of the issues that’s difficult for free marketers like myself. And I am not saying I support the strikers. I'm for free movement of people in the EU, and mindful that the Total plant they're striking outside is itself the beneficiary of French investment. The open market means more winners than losers - but I also accept that this is not much comfort to the losers. I seldom support industrial action, but this time I don’t see union rabble-rousing or extortion.
The strikers raise valid points. As Hillary Benn said, they deserve an answer. And given how potentially combustible this whole situation is, it had better be a good one.