Is Phil Woolas out of his mind?

Home Office plans to penalise "unpatriotic" immigrants are absurd and wrong

So you want to be British, do you? Stop protesting then. That's effectively the message from the Government this morning to would-be British citizens.

Having read Vikram Dodd's piece in today's Guardian, in which he pointed out that immigrants could "lose points for anti-social behaviour, such as protesting against British troops" - since when has protesting, of any shape or form, been considered "anti-social behaviour"? Where are we? Cuba? - I then tuned in to the Today programme to hear Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, once a member of the Anti-Nazi League but now seemingly the Labour minister in charge of appeasing neo-Nazis, warn that immigrants who take part in anti-war demonstrations could jeopardise their chances of being granted British citizenship. Here is the relevant exchange:

"Sarah Montague, the presenter, asked: "Are you effectively saying to people who want to have a British passport, 'You can have one, and when you've got one you can demonstrate as much as you like, but until then don't'?"

"Woolas replied: "In essence, yes. In essence we are saying that the test that applies to the citizen should be broader than the test that applies to the person who wants to be a citizen. I think that's a fair point of view, to say that if you want to come to our country and settle, you should show that adherence."

Is Woolas out of his mind? This is the authoritarian mindset of a Politburo member circa 1972, not the views of a Labour minister (a Labour minister!) in a democratic British government in 2009. "Adherence"? Since when did loyalty and support for Britain translate into loyalty and support for the British state, British government and various misguided "official" policies and proposals, of which today's consultation paper on citizenship is only one?

Woolas went on to add:

"Part of the mistake in this debate, in the public comment, is the assumption that the migrant does not accept that point of view. The vast majority, in my experience, do want to show that they are aspiring to integrate and to support our way of life."

Is "our way of life" exclusively limited to invading and occupying foreign countries? Or does it also include the rights to free thought, free speech and free assembly? Is it now un-British to protest? I expect some answers from Mr Woolas and his allies. And who, by the way, appointed him as the "Britishness Czar", the man who gets to decide what our "way of life" is? The mind boggles.

It is sad to see a former Conservative MP (and now chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service), Keith Best, having to come to the rescue of our ancient British liberties and freedoms, rebutting Woolas's "bizarre" stance on the same radio broadcast and pointing out the rather simple fact that the right to protest is a key attribute of being British:

"I would be very surprised if the government would say to probationary citizens, 'You need to curtail your freedom of speech as a probationary citizen in order to be able to enjoy it fully once you become a British citizen'."

There are few issues that the left and the right agree on these days - but New Labour's failure to protect our basic rights and liberties is surely one of them.


Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.