COLUMN: March 16, 2017

It’s a piece of cake

I HAVE never really been on board with the saying “You can’t have your cake and eat it,” because it sounds like nonsense. How on earth am I supposed to eat my cake if I do not have it first?

Even if I steal the cake – and you should not put it past me, especially if it’s a nice bit of ginger cake – I have definitely had it first before I have eaten it. It is my cake now and you really do not want it back, even if I were willing to return it.

Of course, the saying should accurately be “You can’t have a piece of cake, eat that piece of cake, and then still have that same piece of cake in your hand, though technically you do still have the cake as it is inside you”.

But that’s the choice we have made. You can’t have everything. And so we have decided to sacrifice clarity for convenience. After all, you can’t have your cake and eat it.

We all accept this. It is part of the nature of being an adult that we realise that actions have consequences, that social and professional relationships require give and take, that you have to hand over cash to receive goods, otherwise it’s shoplifting. It is what we teach children as they grow up to stop them from turning into monsters.

And yet there is one public sphere where we completely ignore that lesson – politics. Politicians of all rosettes pop up all the time to tell us that we can have exactly what we want with no adverse consequences to us, expecting us to lap it up.

I have yet to encounter a Brexiter who will admit there might be some drawbacks from pulling out of the European Union.

Even our own Prime Minister, a woman who backed the Remain campaign and said that the country would be more secure from terrorism within the EU, that firms and jobs would be at risk outside the EU, and that the UK would break up, cannot bring herself to admit to the electorate that all might not be plain-sailing in the next few years.

But we are not stupid. Oh, no. Whether we voted Leave or Remain we knew that there were risks and benefits either way, we just disagreed about priorities.

And one of the main priorities of those who voted Leave was immigration. There was too much of it, they said. Take back control.

I quite like immigration. I think immigrants help a country to adapt to the times and stop society from becoming stagnant. New is good. Our national dish is chicken tikka masala, invented in Glasgow by a Pakistani immigrant, just like “fish and chips” was invented by East End Jewish immigrants from Europe.

But I know that a lot of people are not as keen on immigration. I am incapable of changing the heart of somebody who does not like hearing foreign voices on the bus or in Tesco. They see the world differently to me. We might as well be speaking different languages.

Yet they appear to believe that reducing or even ending immigration has no consequences, that it will not harm them at all.

That is utter nonsense. By 2045, a quarter of the UK’s population – assuming Scotland doesn’t run off with the European neighbours – will be aged over 65, including me.

That means there will be fewer working people to pay for their pensions, the NHS that will keep them alive, and their social care.

So in the coming years, the government will have a choice. It will have to slash the NHS and pensions to keep taxes down – because in order to be competitive after Brexit, the UK will have to have lower taxation – or make people work much longer. Do you really fancy having to work until the age of 75? I need a sit-down now after a difficult crossword and I’m only 45.

Or it will have to import immigrants to boost the working population, just as governments have always done, because you decided to have fewer children than your parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

Because whether you like mass immigration – like me – or not, it’s going to be necessary to keep this country prosperous, especially after Brexit. And if you don’t like that, it’s your own fault, because you thought you could have your cake and eat it, and you should have known better.

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