What does it mean to be a “British citizen”?

The Tories make heavy weather of wanting to cut down on immigration –– yet there seems little eviden

I went to a citizenship ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, which showcases historic buildings from the 13th century onwards, dismantled and painstakingly reconstructed by volunteers. The buildings - a smithy, a Victorian schoolroom, a 15th-century farmstead and a working watermill that makes very good flour - nestle amid rolling downs, grazing farm animals and working shire horses.

To this most British of places came the 40 new citizens, from China and Slovakia, from South Africa and Bangladesh, in suit and dress, niqab and Monsoon sparkly top. From Gambia to Brazil, from India and Pakistan, they had travelled, via Worthing and Crawley, East Grinstead and Bognor Regis. The ladies wore jewels; all the little boys wore suit and tie. Everybody's shoes were very clean.

The Queen looked a little incongruous on her low easel, perched at the front of the cavernous Gridshell - a light, wavy shell constructed from oak laths, within which the old houses are rebuilt, like a giant Lego game. Down the Gridshell processed a deputy lord lieutenant and a county council chairman with dangly things on. There were speeches, a swearing of oaths, a cream tea. It was a fantasy of olde England: ". . . I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen . . ." As the three-dozen new citizens trilled along to the opening verse of the national anthem, I couldn't help thinking that these people are not the ones we need to be swearing citizenship pledges today.

Joyless jobless

The ceremony took place on the same day the unemployment figures were published, showing the numbers of economically inactive (those not even seeking employment) at a record 8.19 million high, more than a fifth of the working-age population. Among the unemployed, almost a fifth of 16-to-24-year-olds are jobless, and nearly 780,000 people have been out of work for more than a year.

So what had they been doing, these new citizens who had lived and worked here for at least five years, and passed difficult citizenship tests? (Sample questions: "At what ages do children take key stage tests in England?" "What are the roles and powers of the main institutions of Europe?") There was a doctor, a taxi driver, an IT specialist, a man who worked in recycling, a woman from a tax office. What did they offer that the millions of unemployed and economically inactive Brits did not? Ambition, perhaps. When a local post office closed a couple of years ago, the villagers wailed and moaned, because the accompanying shop would have to shut, too. The post office was indeed just an expensive public subsidy for a crap village shop, so when it did shut, the dismal shop swiftly followed, despite the villagers' attempts to form committees and fundraise to keep it open.

Then a family from Sri Lanka arrived. They bought the lease, reopened the shop. The (generally white and wealthy) villagers patronised them, and the Sri Lankans smiled back. The shop is thriving. It sells fresh, locally sourced meat and fish, and good bread; it offers dry-cleaning, seedlings, fruit and veg. And the family is about to open a little café outside.

It's only one shop in one village, but it is a lesson in what immigrant enterprise can do. The white people just gave up on it when their subsidy was withdrawn. This is the other side of the currently fashionable, anti-immigration bleat from some Labour leadership candidates, and from the Conservatives.

The Financial Times of 18 June calculated that David Cameron's proposed cap on immigration will cost £9bn a year in lost tax revenue -
or £300 for each British family in higher taxes. The calculation is based on forecasts from the new Office for Budget Responsibility which assume that net immigration will remain stable at 140,000 a year - about 40,000 higher than the Tory estimate.

“It is just not possible to keep bringing more and more people into our country to work while at the same time leaving millions of people to live a life on welfare," Cameron said in a recent speech. The Tory policy assumes that all those jobs no longer taken by immigrants will be filled by British people; but why weren't they filled with British people in the first place? Why was an Indian man better placed to start his own taxi business, a Gambian woman best suited for the job at the tax office? Why did it take a Sri Lankan family to save a village shop?

Big scrap

I hope the government has an answer to these questions, because at the same time as it cuts immigration, it is ending the funding aimed at enabling the underqualified or underenthused British unemployed to fill those jobs. When the Liberal Democrats' Danny Alexander announced the government's first cuts to public-sector projects earlier this month, there was a huge fuss about Sheffield being hit hard, it being the political home of Nick Clegg.

There was little comment about the other constituency that was badly hit: the young and long-term unemployed. Four separate programmes aimed at helping one or other of the two groups were scrapped. I wouldn't automatically defend all these "back-to-work" initiatives - my experience is that such schemes can amount to little more than paper-shuffling - but I do wonder how ministers think a long-term unemployed young person morphs into something employable.

No such concerns disrupted the ceremony at the Weald and Downland museum, as the new citizens walked through ancient woodland towards a display of maypole dancing, the admonitions of the county council chairman ringing in their ears: "Welcome! Join in! Pay your taxes!" It wasn't necessary. They already do.

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide