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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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.