To fix the UK, let’s copy the French

When the customs officials searched our motorhome at the Calais side of the channel tunnel last week, they weren’t counting the bottles of wine we’d bought to take home. They were looking for stowaways; people so desperate to get into the UK that they might have snuck into an unlocked cubby hole, be hanging onto our chassis, or have climbed onto our roof. Or maybe we’d have accepted money to smuggle someone in. The officials checked every cupboard, pulled back bedcovers and inspected the bathroom. Only then were we allowed to proceed.

Mr Marr and I looked at each other with the same question – why would anyone leave France and risk life and limb to come to the UK?

Idyllic France

We’d just spent an idyllic couple of weeks enjoying some of the most stunning countryside to exist outwith the Highlands, surviving on delicious cheese, bread, and fruit, washed down with wine that costs three times more at home.

We’d explored hundreds of kilometres of safe, traffic-free cycle paths, wandered through pretty towns and villages, and trekked on vertigo-inducing paths in the high Alps.

Coming back to the rudderless UK, where we’re facing a cost-of-living crisis, sky-rocketing fuel prices, months of strikes, skills shortages, and a mortifying battle to find the next tenant for 10 Downing Street, we couldn’t see the attraction. Wouldn’t everyone prefer to stay in the moderate, well-run, well-resourced France?

Of course, it’s not that straightforward. Many migrants simply don’t have the choice. They seek freedom and safety from impossible situations at home and are exploited by unscrupulous traffickers.

France really impressed

Cycle paths alongside sunflower fields. Magical.

We loved our holiday in France because it was just that – a holiday. We weren’t living ‘real life’ – this was time taken out from our safe, comfortable, privileged lives for the purpose of pleasure. But what we saw of France really impressed.

On my list, just below the scenery, weather, food, and people, came the transport infrastructure. With miles to cover in our motorhome, we chose toll roads. Wide, sweeping motorways, allowing fast, efficient travel from city to city, keeping traffic out of towns and villages. On the way to Geneva, the A40 tunnels through vast mountains, clings to rock faces, and flies over ravines on stunningly engineered bridges and viaducts, all subsidised by the tolls. In the absence of reliable public transport, that sort of infrastructure is sorely needed here. Users pay for the pleasure of using it. Worth every penny, I’d say.

Traffic free cycle lanes? Paid for by Tourist Tax

Cycling round Lake Annecy

And those cycle lanes? The ‘green way’ round Lake Annecy is 50K of paved, traffic-free cycle path, the likes of which we can only dream of. We joined throngs of commuters, shoppers, and lycra-clad pelotons, and spent a full day exploring its secrets, stopping for swims, coffee, lunch, and dinner on the way. Can you imagine that round Loch Ness? Beyond the single, annual closed-road day of The Etape, it’s simply not safe.

How was that path paid for? Through tourist tax. Our campsites cost €20-30 per night, with an additional €2-3 going directly into the local economy to pay for services and infrastructure that make life better for locals. You’re not going to change my mind on that. I’m still firmly in favour.

Why leave France for the UK?

But while fantastic French transport infrastructures undeniably added to the pleasure of our holiday, they don’t answer the question I started with – why would migrants be so keen to leave France’s shores and risk their lives to come here?

The short answer would appear to be two-fold; the UK has jobs and free healthcare. We have jobs aplenty for those willing to work, and lucky enough to acquire legal status. But the NHS? It’s on its knees. It desperately needs skilled staff and proper funding. Which brings us back to immigration, and taxation.

Tax up, immigration up

I’m no Tory. I’m not in favour of lowering taxes. I’m in favour of properly funded public services, with health, education, and transport at the top of the list. To get these we need to pay for them through increased taxation of higher earners, or of holidaymakers, as the French do.

And rather than inhumanely sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, I’m in favour of loosening our restrictions on immigration. We need workers. We need people to help kick-start our economy. We need people earning decent wages and paying decent tax, so we can afford the improved services and infrastructure that we both need and deserve.

Immigration isn’t just a case of compassion, it can, if handled properly, help boost our economy. It’s time to copy what the neighbours do.

This column is published by Highland News and Media in newspapers across the north of Scotland. If you can, please support print media and the future of independent  journalism by buying a paper, or subscribing online. 

If you’d like to receive it by email every week, sign up free. Just pop your email address into the widget on my home page here. And feel free to share