Leading article: Our leaders must make the case for economic liberalism

They must do more than just condemn these howls of misguided rage

Share
Related Topics

The wildcat strikes by employees of the energy sector went nuclear yesterday. Workers at the Sellafield and Heysham nuclear plants walked out, joining the thousands who have been protesting since last week against the decision of the French oil company, Total, to award a contract to a firm bringing in foreign workers to its Lincolnshire refinery.

The protests might be gathering strength, but the case of the protesters seems bereft of merit. Acas is brokering talks between Total and the unions, but no evidence of wage undercutting by the foreign workers or discrimination against British labour in the awarding of the contract has emerged. These protests would seem, then, to be howl of misguided rage from construction workers worried about the security of their jobs.

It is, of course, no surprise that emotions are running high. And construction has been hit particularly hard by the recession. But it is the general slowdown, not imported foreign labour, that is responsible for the threat to jobs in this country. These protesters have chosen the wrong target for their frustration.

Economic insecurity and xenophobia make for a dangerously combustible political mix. It is no surprise that a populist gadfly such as Nigel Farage of Ukip has sought to exploit the crisis to further his party's anti-EU agenda. But it is disappointing that Alan Johnson, a senior member of the Government, has pandered to the strikers by suggesting European employment law might need to be revised.

Thankfully Mr Johnson has, so far, been an isolated voice. Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson have been resolute in defending the single EU labour market, although the crass stupidity of the Prime Minister's "British jobs for British workers" sound bite in 2007 is now beyond doubt. Nick Clegg for the Liberal Democrats and Ken Clarke for the Conservatives have also, wisely, refused to play the populist card.

Yet there is a duty on our political leaders to do considerably more than distance themselves from these strikes. What these protests demonstrate is that there remains a worrying level of ignorance in parts of the country about just how vital European economic integration has been in delivering prosperity to Britain. The leaders of all our major political parties need to make the argument very clearly for continued liberal trade and the free movement of labour throughout the European continent, indeed the world. They need to explain that the alternative is not prosperity, but penury.

Protectionism does not stimulate domestic economies. Nor does it even protect jobs, since economic demand shrinks behind hastily erected national barriers. That is the overwhelming lesson of the 1930s when tariff barriers were erected between nations in the face of a similar global economic slump.

Those sympathetic to the refinery strikers should also consider the consequences if our European partners adopted the policy these protesters are wishing on our Government. Do they really want to see the estimated 1.5 million Britons, who have taken the opportunity offered by EU membership to work on the Continent, forced to return home? That is the nightmare scenario we are facing if one nation starts to unpick the fabric of the EU agreements on labour movement.

These are disconcertingly uncertain economic times. And the political stakes are high. Now is the time for all responsible politicians to stand up unequivocally for the economic liberalism that will, given time, deliver us from these present difficulties.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“I just wanted some chicken wings,” Tan Shen told the assembled media. “But once I got in there ... I decided I needed time to think.”  

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Ellen E Jones
Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay's Chris Martin “consciously uncoupled” in March  

My best and worst stories of 2014

Simmy Richman
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015