Rainy Sunday

I want a system where the Government is able to decide who comes into the country - I think that's what the British people want' Theresa May 5/9/16

Sunday afternoons at a boarding school can tend to drag. When I arrived at mine in 1969 Sunday afternoon walks were compulsory. The boys would get into pairs, form a long untidy crocodile and march off in one direction while the girls went in a similar, but neater, formation the opposite way. If the crocodiles looked likely to meet the boys marked time to allow the girls to pass unsullied.

By my middle teens the regime had become more liberal. Walks had gone and we filled our time listening to Bowie and Reed. My focus changed from trying to trip the boy in front to trying to get a girl, any girl really, to notice me. Eventually one did, but, as she pointed out, it took three years.

I don’t know who of us suggested it but it was one of those early Autumn Sunday afternoons that saw me running outside into a Biblical thunderstorm with the future Mrs R. Within seconds we were soaked through and beyond caring; splashing through newly formed streams; rolling on the grass; pushing each other into deep puddles. I still remember kissing cold wet lips while the rain coursed over us.

That the memory has lingered for over forty years is possibly down to it being one of the few times I enjoyed getting caught in the rain. For most of my life I’ve looked on bad weather as something best avoided. I usually manage to hit it around twenty miles into a forty-mile bike ride or just after half time at Broadland, where the rain is always sleet and attacks you horizontally from across the broad expanse of Breydon Water. I can’t help but feel it would be rather splendid to be able to control the weather rather than simply be a slave to its vagaries.

Of course, our atmosphere is a complex system. Ordering a sunny day for your bike ride could have disastrous effects on the other side of the globe. If some day weather control moves from science fiction one fact is sure to remain: you can’t stop thunderstorms by regulating against them.

I get the impression that my weather aspirations are similar to the way politicians view markets. It would be rather splendid to be able to control them, particularly when they feel they are behaving inconveniently.

The labour market is one that is getting a lot of attention after the Brexit vote. The claim is we have uncontrolled immigration. This is odd, coming as it frequently does from self-proclaimed free-marketeers.

Last year we had net immigration of around 300,000, half from the EU. Yet unemployment fell and employment rose. In aggregate, immigrants are net contributors to the public purse and as individuals they are less likely to be unemployed than the average born and bred Brit. This suggests a market that is close to equilibrium and functioning well. Immigration is controlled – it is controlled by the market; the fundamental force so revered by the people now seeking to rein in its powers.

Like the weather, markets are complex; there is a long and sorry litany of unexpected consequences when Governments have moved to influence markets for political ends – even if the end is one the people declaimed. If you think of a market as a balloon, if you regulate to squeeze one area it simply pops out somewhere else.

I happen to enjoy working with foreigners – our office is not quite the United Nations but we are a fairly cosmopolitan bunch. For those who are less comfortable with immigration, regulation to restrict numbers is the wrong approach and will not work without harming the market.

That does not necessarily mean immigration cannot be reduced without causing economic damage. For example, we have around a million people unemployed and many more with only basic skills. The response that would see a sustained reduction in immigration is a proper commitment to improving the skills base through training and education – seeing the future as something to invest in rather than a target for cuts. We need more schools and colleges delivering life-long learning and training to reduce immigration, not regulation, quotas and tighter boarders.

I fear the runaway Brexit train now has too much momentum and we have lost the opportunity for a strategic response to immigration but sometimes life surprises you…

When I got back with The Future Mrs R wet, bedraggled, grinning broadly and expecting a bollocking we were met by the girls’ matron brandishing two towels, suggesting we get out of our wet clothes before we caught our deaths. There’s something vaguely matronish (if not matronly) about Teresa May, so maybe, just maybe…

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