When Theresa May told a stunned Conservative Party conference in 2002 that some people called them “the nasty party” there was widespread horror, recrimination and an eight year struggle to detoxify the Tory brand. “Our base is too narrow, and so, occasionally are our sympathies”, she said. I agreed back then and agree now. In her other infamous words, “nothing has changed”.
The 2005 ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking’ dog-whistle campaign showed the party wasn’t listening. Posters shouted ‘it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’ and asked ‘how would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter’. Only after a third election defeat in a row were attempts made to clean up the Tory image. In came trainer-wearing, husky-hugging David Cameron with a new tree logo and a dream of the big society.
But old habits run deep. The undercurrent of old-school Tory nastiness and the narrowness of their sympathies has never gone away. In fact they have driven the economic and social policy of the Tory-led governments of the last eight years. This approach is epitomised by their odious Bedroom Tax of 2013, when they paid no regard to the people driven out of family homes and the local communities decimated by empty homes. The Tories willingly penalised people for the loss of a partner or child by demanding their home.
Elsewhere, the rise of foodbanks is greeted with a shrug and the suggestion it’s just a ‘cash flow’ problem. The two-child policy plumbs new depths of inhumanity, its inherent heartlessness exposed most by its rape clause. People with degenerative diseases are told they must be reassessed for their benefits. The streets of London and other cities are overwhelmed with rough sleeping. People are sanctioned for missing job centre appointments, with a ruthless disregard for legitimate reasons like taking a child to hospital. And don’t tell me there are not performance targets in the DWP, just like those which have caused Amber Rudd’s career to come crashing down.
In our health service, EU citizens who have worked, settled and contributed to our country don’t know if they have a place here after Brexit. In England, EU nationals make up almost 10 per cent of doctors and more than seven percent of nurses alone. They care for our sick children, parents and grandparents and keep our health system working, but data released in autumn shows that as many as 10,000 have now decided to leave our NHS. They have been driven out by a government prepared to fan the flames of xenophobia.
All of these people find themselves outside the narrow sympathies of the nasty party and therefore condemned to live in a hostile environment. As Victoria Canning of the Open University has argued this week, targets can strip away people’s humanity and personal stories, reducing them to statistics and quotas. This is modern Tory Britain.
The irony is that the very person who called this out, back in 2002, is now its embodiment at Number 10.
The now Prime Minister Theresa May ran the Home Office for six years and, with her two special advisers who were described as ‘toxic and destructive’, oversaw the permeation of the ‘hostile environment’ into the Home Office’s blood stream. Increasing targets for deportation inevitably resulted in the widening of the net, and the horrendous injustice we have seen in the treatment of British Windrush citizens.
Other examples of the Tories’ vindictive approach can be seen in the number of government requests to access confidential non-clinical NHS details rising three-fold, or the inhumane conditions for women in Yarls Wood detention centre, and the minimum income restrictions on spouses coming to the UK. Policies which are causing concern and distress and tearing families apart.
The British public want a fair and firm immigration system. But we are not a hostile nation or a hostile people.
The impact of eight years of the nasty party in power has been brutal for many people; not just for illegal or legal immigrants, but for all those outside the narrow confines of Tory sympathy. The people at the top of the Tory party may come and go, but their fundamental beliefs remain, enmeshed into the fabric of Conservatism. Amber Rudd may have gone, but under Theresa May the nasty party remains alive and kicking, and life will continue to be tough by those at the sharp end of their policies. Tory Britain will continue feel like a hostile environment for so many of its citizens.
Anna Turley is Labour MP for Redcar.