Controlling immigration: the snake oil of our time

Nigel Farage has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. The problem comes when the other politicians try to "out-Farage" him.

Today, I watched as a monarch, wearing a crown encrusted with more than 3,000 precious gems, announced to a group of lords and bishops what “her” government’s plans for the Parliamentary session were and granted them God’s blessing. Later, in the ironically named House of Commons, the Eton-educated, millionaire grandson of a baronet, a direct descendent of King William IV and fifth cousin of the aforementioned monarch, gave further details. If this is a democracy, it is cleverly disguised on days like these.

Tightening control of immigration, as expected, occupied centre stage. Piecing together leaks, briefings and subsequent announcements, this appears to include restricting benefits and healthcare (presumably to address the relevant “tourisms”), access to driving licences, forcing landlords to check a tenant’s immigration status, ensuring surviving foreign spouses do not collect pension benefits to which equivalent British spouses would be entitled. In the analysis which followed, we were assured repeatedly that all this had nothing to do with the recent surge in Ukip’s popularity.

Do I have a problem with a bill designed to "ensure that this country attracts people who will contribute and deter those who will not"? Absolutely not. Similarly, I would have no problem, in principle, with a Bill designed to ensure that the eastern grey kangaroo ought to be a protected species in Hampshire. Is there any actual evidence that either is a real problem which merits legislative priority? Absolutely not.

Evidence from the DWP on the relative burden imposed by EU migrants on welfare is unequivocal: of the 1.8 million non-British EU citizens of working age living here, about 5% claim an "out of work benefit" compared with 13% for Britons. And what about other services? Unsurprisingly, since the majority of migrants are young healthy adults, research shows that they impose a disproportionately small burden on health and education.

All the much ballyhooed "health tourism" costs the NHS between £7m (according to the Health Minister) and £20m (according to the Prime Minister). How much money would you need for the administration of a system in which every doctor and nurse, in every practice and hospital, would be made to check the nationality and immigration status of every potential patient?

All in all, a comprehensive study of the last wave of migration from countries which acceded in 2004 demonstrates conclusively that year after year they contributed to the public purse roughly 30% more than they cost. In short, they are a huge asset. How is it, then, that we (I am one such migrant, albeit from a different era) find ourselves in the eye of a political storm and the target of sustained attack?

It would be facile to say that the answer is Nigel Farage. He has merely acted as the catalyst, by stepping into an emotional vacuum left by mainstream parties. The British economy is in deep distress and crying like a baby, not conscious of or unable to express the source of its discomfort. The other leaders were standing over the cot arguing about whether it is hungry or thirsty or teething or has colic. Farage has stepped into the nursery picked it up and put a dummy in its mouth. The dummy will do nothing to address the underlying problem, but it is comforting.

Like a Snake Oil salesman, he has rolled into a village with all sorts of problems and has offered an illogical but easy panacea. Unemployment? Lack of economic growth? Unfairness? Corruption? Arthritis? Unrequited love? Try some of this Bash-A-Foreigner ointment and everything will be dandy - or your money back.

The real problem arises when Cameron, who purports to be the village pharmacist, decides it is too difficult to disabuse people of this notion and easier to get into the Snake Oil racket. It legitimises the confidence trick and emboldens the charlatan. All Farage needs to do is make the - now legitimate - claim that he sells The Original Snake Oil. Avoid Imitations.

And the confidence trick is a rather gigantic one. The OECD says income inequality is growing in this country faster than any other rich nation in more than 40 years. The richest 300 people in the world possess more wealth than than the poorest three billion – the equivalent of the populations of the UK, the US, India, Brazil and China combined. The annual income of the 100 richest people could end global poverty four times over. Stocks in the UK and the US hit pre-crisis peaks, but nothing is “trickling down” and absolutely no action has been taken to avert another shock which will kick us like a FTSE in the Nasdaqs.

At a time like this, when we all sharpen our elbows and worry increasingly about securing a more equitable slice of the pie, a job which pays a living wage, care when we are old or sick or both, a safety net of kindness, an education and a future for our children, the idea that the people standing in our way are fictional Romanians and foreign widows is not only daft, but immensely dangerous. Roll up, roll up.

The Queen with an immigrant. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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