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

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

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.