There is no disguising it anymore. Britain is turning sharply right.
Led by a Conservative Party that is increasingly beginning to sound like France’s far-right National Front, post- Brexit Britain is attacking foreignness wholesale. Foreign workers are in its sights. So are foreign students.
Hard Brexiteers, many of whom are senior government ministers, appear busily engaged in fumigating the political arena for pesky, liberal ideas such as openness and inclusiveness. They are turning concepts — universal commerce, free markets and transnational human rights — advanced in the late 18th century by Thomas Paine into foreign notions. But Paine, who was born in England, migrated to the British American colonies only in his 40s. In many ways, his ideas grew out of English soil.
This is pest control masquerading as immigration policy. What is so pestilential about the foreigner? British Prime Minister Theresa May warns that foreign doctors are in the country for no more than an “interim period”. Her home secretary, Amber Rudd, suggests two further ways to reduce foreign decontamination: Limit the number of international students at British universities and force companies to reveal how many foreign staff they employ. The outcry over the last step forced a U-turn but the British government’s direction of travel remains clear.
All three proposals are bad for Britain plc, turning universities, hospitals and other workplaces into foreigner-unfriendly zones. They undo the marketing campaign that British universities have successfully run for years around the world as they competed with Australia and New Zealand for full fee-paying international students. More crucially, they make a nonsense of Britain’s claim to be outward-looking and an attractive place to visit, live or work.
And yet, the idea of the pestilential foreigner seems to be taking hold. It may ultimately prove to be self-harming.
Just 18 months ago, beset by staff shortages, Britain’s National Health Service hired 3,000 doctors from at least 27 countries, including Iraq and Syria. Turfing them out will not help British patients.
One out of every three British employees in the fledgling technology sector was born overseas. Driving out the “foreigner” would jeopardise this industry, which is striving to build a global tech hub to rival Silicon Valley.
International students bring $17 billion to the British economy and create more than 130,000 jobs. Keeping them away will impoverish British universities.
The government is playing with the idea of a tiered visa system that would tie students’ admittance to their chosen university’s ranking and subject of study. Foreign students’ right to work while studying, to work in Britain after graduation, to bring along family and to arrive without passing an English language test would become a lottery. Students seeking admission to universities ranked lower than Oxford or Cambridge may find it hard to get a visa.
All students and all universities are not equal, the home secretary has said. True, but surely the colour of their money is the same no matter where they spend it?
However, the most menacing proposal is the now-abandoned attempt to force businesses to reveal how many foreign staff they employ. Steve Hilton, who advised former prime minister David Cameron on policy, described it as worse than Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims entering the United States. Ministers might as well announce that “foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms”, he wrote in the Sunday Times.
If that sounds like gross overstatement, consider this: The British home secretary justified her name-and-shame proposals for companies in the name of open discussion. “If we do talk about immigration, don’t call me a racist,” Rudd said.
Yes, absolutely. It is not racist to talk about immigration. What one says, however, might very well be racist.