Frances O’Grady: “Our goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings”

The General secretary of the TUC takes the NS Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?
The Pill – one small step for a woman to take control of her own life but a giant step for womankind. And at least as important as the invention that put men on the moon.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?
That global warming is real, and a direct result of our use and abuse of the planet.

What is the most important sporting event of the past hundred years?
The 1968 Mexico Summer Olympics, when the medal-winning athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with Peter Norman’s support, raised black-gloved salutes to protest against racial segregation in the US and South Africa, and racism in sport. Their subsequent vilification by some governments and the Olympic establishment belies the myth that sport can be a politics-free zone.

Which book has had the greatest impact on you?
Socialism Made Easy by James Connolly, a gift from my grandad. The film: Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán (2010).

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?
Clement Attlee, for his recognition that the greater the economic difficulties, the greater the need for social justice.

Who is the most significant author or playwright?
Roy Williams, author of the play Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads, who can transform the audience as well as the stage.

And which artist has had the greatest impact on you?
Francis Bacon, whose brilliance offended the taste of the narrow-minded.

How about anyone in business? With the centenary year of the Dublin Lockout, I will interpret this broadly and give the honour to “Big Jim” Larkin. His promise that new unionism could lead to new hope and inspiration still holds true.

And sportsperson?
The former Arsenal Ladies captain Faye White, who also won 90 caps for England. For the record, she retired because her knees were dodgy – not because she had a baby.

Who is the most influential philanthropist of the past hundred years?
I am struck by research which shows that, as a proportion of income, the more money people have, the less they give. A pinstriped philanthropist is hard to find. But the lifelong dedication to people’s well-being and rights shown by the former president of Ireland Mary Robinson offers a good example of the original meaning of the term.

What is your favourite quotation?
From the poem “London” by William Blake – which explains why we need the power of imagination to free ourselves:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

What is your favourite speech?
The Clydeside trade union activist Jimmy Reid’s speech to Glasgow University in 1972, because it serves as a reminder to trade unionists that our ultimate goal is not just the betterment of workers but the fulfilment of human beings.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next hundred years?
The development of artificial intelligence. As with any new technology, how it will shape our lives depends on whose interests it is used to serve.

What is your greatest concern about the future?
That unpopular governments will resort to conventional methods of digging themselves out of an economic hole: war.

What will be the most dramatic development in your own field?
There will be a movement for economic democracy in the 21st century akin to the Chartist movement for universal suffrage in the 19th century. The global concentration of power, wealth and capital is unsustainable.

What is the top priority for the future well-being of people and our planet?
Greater equality and democracy. As the book The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrated so profoundly, it is our best chance of liberating the human spirit.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 1914 to 2014

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.