Boris Johnson's new immigration regime will damage much more than industry
Are Johnson and Cummings implementing the will of the people – or gaslighting them?
Britain’s home secretary Priti Patel at Imperial College London last Tuesday, where she announced plans for a new points-based immigration system. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
The UK’s new immigration regime seeks to stop unskilled workers entering the country. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing: the new rules state that anyone earning less than £25,600 a year is both unskilled and without value.
The label “unskilled”, as pejorative as it is inaccurate, displays contempt for workers of many different kinds. Upsetting people who didn’t vote for them is of little concern to a government whose priority is to be seen to take back control of Britain’s borders. Provided this promise is seen to be kept, the consequences of doing so are irrelevant.
Immigration from the EU was unrestricted but need not have been: there were ways the UK could have exerted control but chose not to. People have now voluntarily stopped coming from the EU – an unsurprising development given the hostility that migrants now face on a daily basis. The new rules will increase numbers coming from the non-EU parts of the globe.
London and Scotland will be damaged by these proposals. It’s probably enough that two of the biggest Remain-voting areas are to be made to suffer, economically at least. One way of thinking about restricting the supply of unskilled workers is to observe members of the UK cabinet pulling the ladder up behind themselves.
For many people, it is intuitively obvious that immigration lowers wages for indigenous workers. As with a lot of economic intuition, this happens to be dead wrong. There is little evidence that wages are significantly lower; one of the most authoritative studies found that over a recent eight-year period, low-skill pay rates in the UK were reduced by one penny an hour as a result of immigration.
These sort of effects are found in many other studies around the world. A penny an hour isn’t nothing, but it isn’t what the British government believes. That counterintuitive result could work in the opposite direction: if immigration is successfully restricted, indigenous job opportunities and wages might actually fall.
It’s important to act dim and be utterly pliable. Most of the new cabinet have slipped seamlessly into their new roles
Cynicism and contempt are also accompanied by gaslighting. Coercive control is at the heart of this behaviour: the daily threats to the BBC are designed to keep the broadcaster in line. Similarly, the mutterings from Downing Street about the judiciary may not amount to much provided the courts don’t interfere with the Dominic Cummings-Boris Johnson project. Any cabinet minister who displays intelligence, independence of thought, and offers even the mildest of criticism has (and will be) fired. It’s important to act dim and be utterly pliable. Most of the new cabinet have slipped seamlessly into their new roles.
Gaslighting the BBC is one thing. Is the government also doing the same to the country at large?
It’s harder than ever to figure out what its Brexit intentions are. The name has been abolished and no-deal has been rebranded as Australia (because Oz doesn’t have a deal with the EU). Neither Brexit nor no-deal has gone away. Part of the gaslighter’s technique is to convince the victim that they are losing their mind. It’s tempting to conclude that Cummings’s plan is working perfectly.
New immigration rules are a celebration of Brexit freedoms. The tricky bit remains trade. We have had tweet wars, slide wars and a rambling rewriting of European history from the UK’s new chief Brexit negotiator. The UK says it wants the Canada deal that the EU says has never been on the table. Cue accusations of bad faith from both sides. Johnson’s little local difficulty might be that he didn’t agree to something but he certainly signed up to it in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement. The last time he discovered he had signed something he hadn’t understood was the infamous Chequers deal. That led to his resignation. Nobody should hold their breath hoping for a repeat performance.
The new Tom Stoppard play, Leopoldstadt, recently opened to rave reviews in London. It’s a spellbinding if uncomfortable experience: the Holocaust in all its epic monstrosity told via the history of a single, extended family. At the end, an extraordinary piece of theatre is greeted with relatively perfunctory applause: the audience is left feeling uneasy about clapping the evil they have just witnessed.
The economy plays second fiddle to the primacy of power, rapidly consolidating in 10 Downing Street
Art like this serves many purposes, not least the need to keep telling a story lest it is forgotten. Or repeated. Stoppard gets an ironic laugh when one of his characters, loosely based on himself in the 1950s, says “at least it can’t happen again”.
Anti-Semitism has still to be purged from the Labour Party and is a subliminal driver of the Tory government’s public attacks on north Londoners.
The UK is changing fast; the alt-right pops up in unexpected places. The economy plays second fiddle to the primacy of power, rapidly consolidating in 10 Downing Street. Being exposed as a eugenicist still gets you fired, but the suspicion is that getting caught is the problem, not the belief.
London’s theatre-goers wonder whether a play set in cosmopolitan Vienna over a century ago is a vehicle for a prediction about Britain’s near future. The obsession with immigration is one small part of the drive to implement the so-called will of the people. Business will be damaged by the inability to hire workers needed for many different industries. But to worry about the economics is to miss the point of the project.