Theresa May’s week ended with the mass walk out of her social mobility commission, and started with the official wine supplier to No 10 warning that her country faces starvation if the door is closed to foreign fruit pickers after Brexit. It’s a tough job being PM.
Does Chapel Down Winery, the Kent producer of sprightly Sauvignon Blanc-style Bacchus and fizz that has gone toe to toe with Champagne in blind tastings, have a point?
“The biggest potential impact of Brexit is on agricultural labour,” CEO Frazer Thompson opined. “Kent has had eastern Europeans picking fruit in recent years, but we’ll all starve if the labour issue is not sorted after Brexit.”
It isn’t hard to predict the response of the Brexit crew to this. “Hyperbole,” is what they’ll say. “We’ll get it sorted! All it needs is for Brexiteer ministers to follow the path mapped out by their colleague Andrea Leadsom a few months ago by telling entitled millennials to get off their backsides and into the fields.
“If a few newspaper columnists will kindly join in by lecturing them on how lazy they are, they’ll rush out in patriotic fervour to do their bit so we can toast each other with a spot of that fizz at the next Downing Street reception.”
No we aren’t living in a Philip K Dick novel (although sometimes I wonder); this has genuinely been put forward by some as the answer to the problem Mr Thompson raises, as if berating people and calling them idle and entitled is just the ticket for producing a turnaround in their thinking.
Unlike most of the people doing that shouting, I’ve actually engaged in agricultural labour – albeit many years ago and at a time when I was able-bodied. It was hard, painful and sometimes dangerous work. One of the fingers I’m typing this with has a discoloured spot at the tip as a result of my cutting a chunk of it off with a pair of secateurs while pruning fruit trees in the autumn.
I also, at various points in time, pushed supermarket trolleys, hauled stock around in a warehouse, and delivered newspapers. All of those jobs were preferable to picking fruit on a seasonal basis.
Why make that point? Simple. The Brits, whom Ms Leadsom and friends fondly imagine will pick up the slack when Mr Thompson’s eastern Europeans are gone, can’t be forced to do so. With the Labour market currently experiencing shortages in a number of sectors, there are plenty of alternatives available to them.
They might not be well paid. They might not be a lot of fun. But they still might be seen as preferable to the fields.
In stark contrast to the nativist propaganda currently doing the rounds, the eastern Europeans who have been coming here aren’t stealing anyone’s jobs. They are doing work that others don’t want to do.
The answer to the problem Mr Thompson raises is actually fairly simple: regardless of how the Brexit process proceeds, we need put out the welcome mat. Want to come here to work at Chapel Down, or at places like it? Have at it. We’ll buy you a drink in the pub afterwards too. We’ll tell all those who would moan about it to belt up, and we’ll put the really nasty racists in jail.
What’s that? You want to use the NHS if you cut the top of your finger off because you’ll be paying taxes and such? No trouble. We’ll let you do that too. It’s only right.
Unfortunately, for Mr Thompson in particular, while we might not starve, we probably will have to endure a period of ugly economic disruption, and very much more expensive fresh food, before the sense in taking that stance filters through to the brains of some of our more lumpen-headed politicians.
I’d advise stocking up on a few cases of Chapel Down in the meantime. It’ll be a lot easier to see out the disruption half-cut.