It’s good cop, bad cop. Theresa May proclaimed in her address at the end of the Conservative party conference that she was determined to turn Britain into a great meritocracy. And yet, only the day before at the same venue, the home secretary Amber Rudd laid out plans to restrict migrants’ access to employment in the UK.
In other words, this is a government which will not hesitate to use the power of the state to further its own objectives. This is a marked change from previous Conservative administrations, to whom the whole idea, with the notable exceptions of defence and law and order, was socialist, bolshie or even plain un-Conservative.
The British state has generally been seen as benign. We like to think there are sufficient checks and balances to prevent governments over-reaching themselves. To date and in general most people would probably accept that there are sufficient safeguards.
There has, however, always been one major exception to this, and that is how we treat people from other countries, particularly those from less well-off eastern European countries and people who have not had the good fortune to be white.
Enter home secretary Amber Rudd. Yesterday, she unveiled proposals unashamedly designed to “prevent migrants taking jobs that British people can do”, even though at present companies seeking skilled workers outside the EU must advertise a job locally for 28 days before looking abroad. The Conservative government is therefore seeking to introduce a measure which is patently anti-anyone who wasn’t born in Britain.
Interestingly, Rudd’s plans have provoked searing criticism from the British Chambers of Commerce. Their acting director-general, Adam Marshall, said in Wednesday’s Times: “It would be a sad day if having a global workforce was seen as a badge of shame”. Evidently Britain is to be a great meritocracy sadly made up only of the indigenous white population.
Using the state to further political objectives is almost always associated with centre-left and left governments. Action by Labour governments delivered a great deal in the way of health and welfare and reducing inequality – the National Health Service, a safety net to mitigate extreme poverty, the Equal Pay Act and much more.
The Conservative tradition has until now been very different.There was a brief post-war consensus – “Butskellism” as some called it, after the Tory Chancellor Rab Butler and the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell – but Margaret Thatcher presided over the ending of it with her great belief in the small state and reducing the size of government. The subsequent Labour government inevitably, or so we thought, reversed this trend.
It now looks as if we are entering a new era. Having been crowned Prime Minister by a Conservative party which has moved consistently rightwards, May appears to be harnessing the power of the state to further her policy objectives. Only time will tell what “there is more to life than individualism and self-interest” and “we have a responsibility to one another. And… government has a responsibility too” will mean in practice. What now seem like fine words could well turn into narrow and restrictive policies to appease the Tory right.
This is essentially the crux of the matter. May is leading one of the most right-wing Conservative governments in living memory. She has already pandered to the Tory right wing by talking about a “hard” Brexit and promising to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty sooner rather than later. Britain’s exit from the EU will now begin in March next year. None of this sits easily with her stated aim to foster a spirit of citizenship and a sense of public service.
Britain’s membership of the European Union has always been about more than economics. Being part of an international institution comprising 28 countries stretching from Ireland to Finland to Bulgaria to Cyprus means that Britain looks outwards. Leaving would destroy that. We will become a shrinking country, closing in on ourselves, not letting people from other countries in and inevitably finding it harder to travel abroad.
Splendid isolation will simply not work for a country the size of the UK, assuming the kingdom stays united. The EU is our main link to the outside world, while the single market is our means of trading with a large part of that world. At present over half of our exports go to the EU. From 2001 to 2011, migrants from the European Economic Area contributed 34 percent more per year in taxes than they received in benefits, an important net gain.
May appears intent on destroying all of this. While the British people voted to leave the European Union, they were never asked about the single market. As more and more companies such as Nissan in the North East talk about leaving Britain if we come out of the single market and the City of London becomes ever more concerned about the future of our financial services industry, May’s main objective appears to be pacifying obsessive and noisy Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers.
This is no way to run a country. Britain will be much poorer and much more divided if we quit the single market. It would be a tragedy for our fine country, and one which many British MEPs from all parties are working hard to stop.