The biggest con the establishment has ever pulled
The only factors truly central to the current immigration debate are not based either on relevant evidence or ideology. First, Ukip are doing increasingly well in the polls, causing the Conservative Party to have a full-on identity crisis; and, second, there is a realisation that migrant-bashing is an incredibly useful tool in the armoury of a coalition which appears not to have any policy aims, other than clinging on to power past the next election; a fact nakedly revealed by recent u-turns on “green crap” and state interventionism in the payday lending market.
Fear of immigration has become the golden key which unlocks difficult areas of social policy; just like paedophiles and terrorists have in matters of civil liberties. We would never accept a committee of do-gooders in 10 Downing Street deciding which website ought to be filtered and which not, but for the justification of child pornography. There would have been rioting at the idea that out own government gave permission to US intelligence to read all our email correspondence, but for the spectre of bearded men with explosives.
The relationship between immigration and welfare is similarly cynical. Secretaries of state sit in conference rooms with their special advisors, trying to figure out an “immigration angle” that will allow them access to a service they wish to dismantle, abolish or privatise. This could not be clearer. Why else would Jeremy Hunt devote such a significant slice of his energy to sorting out “health tourism” when it is entirely perceived, rather than real? But here’s the thing – he uses that fiction to introduce the idea that access to health is not a universal right, in a way that the public find palatable, but the net result is very real: the principle of “free at the point of delivery”, shredded; every GP surgery and hospital equipped with a cash register, an accountant and a tariff of what each service costs. Guess what happens next.
“Why should my taxes pay for services to foreigners?”, goes the familiar cris-de-coeur. Your taxes don’t, is the short answer. Every set of data shows that, as a group, the taxes of EU citizens working here pay for the services that they use and then they pay for some that others use, on top.
It is not so long ago, that all three main parties were shaking the pompoms of enlargement with the enthusiasm of a Glee cast member. We were told this would give the UK access to lucrative new Eastern European markets. Did they all miss the bit which granted the citizens of those countries access to our labour market? It was hardly in fine print. Now that the time has finally come, draconian measures are being introduced to punish people who have gained the legal right to be here, in direct exchange for granting access to their countries’ wealth for our companies. And all major political parties broadly agree that this is sensible.
Even Nick Clegg, the ultimate turncoat, agrees. I would love to be a fly on the wall while he explains the logic behind these measures to his Dutch mother and Spanish wife. No thought is given to the potential havoc this creates for the people already here and the millions of Brits living and working in the EU. When I found myself sleeping rough for a short period some years ago, I had already been paying full tax in this country for more than fifteen years and had never claimed a thing. Under current proposals, I would be packed off and deported from the country that has been my home, to a country in which I have never existed as an adult. According to which principle of equity or fairness is this permissible?
But then, this isn’t about equity or fairness. It isn’t even about immigration. While all this goes on, we continue to encourage foreign investors to gobble up London property; we send delegations to China and India to explain new, streamlined visa procedures for rich business leaders; we spend public money to defend in court the rights of foreign financiers to an obscene bonus; we continue, even, to support further EU enlargement to Turkey, creating the lucrative markets of the future, while fully aware that when it comes to the actual people, we’re not so keen. This is about rich against poor and corporations against individual rights. It is about subtly eroding the universal welfare principle into a contributory one. Separating people into those deserving and those not. Guess what happens next.
So, feel free to wave the union flag while supporting this most un-British notion that some citizens’ rights are less important than yours. You may hope that, once you have accepted the odious principle that wealthy people have a better claim to their aspirations than poor people, birthright will shield from its extension. But make no mistake – in a country where the gap between rich and poor has never risen so fast, where corporation tax is due to become equal to VAT next year, where your earnings continue to fall in real terms while those at the top cream the profit and hide it in Caribbean isles with impunity – the idea that what stands between you and the life you want for yourself and your family is next year’s hypothetical Bulgarian migrant, is the biggest confidence trick the establishment has ever pulled.