May’s migrant stance result of over-compensation not ideology

Nuisance brews for PM as Windrush emigrants command sympathies of nation

 People gather for a Windrush generation solidarity protest in Brixton: the pattern of Theresa May’s behaviour is that of someone eager to appease a body of opinion she half-understands. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

People gather for a Windrush generation solidarity protest in Brixton: the pattern of Theresa May’s behaviour is that of someone eager to appease a body of opinion she half-understands. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

 

The “jobsworth” has a special place in British infamy. There is no American or Australian pejorative for a graceless bureaucrat who holds the rule book dearer than common sense. Suburban and shiny-suited, the jobsworth stirs class prejudices against the clerical bourgeoisie from above and below.

Cultural context might explain why Amber Rudd, the UK home secretary, felt she could pin the mistreatment of postwar Caribbean migrants on a home office that “loses sight of the individual”. As part of the “hostile environment” for illegal migration, children of the Windrush, who are legal but sometimes lack paperwork, have been hounded to the point of deportation.

But this is not a case of bureaucracy run amok. This is government policy working as intended: the systematic inconveniencing of migrants (as well as their employers and public-service providers) until they give up, leave and reduce annual net migration to the government’s desired range of tens of thousands. If the policy has suddenly caused a political nuisance for Theresa May, the prime minister, it is only because the topical victims command the sympathies of a nation they helped to rebuild.

As well as the 'hostile environment' that she promised, May once pledged to 'deport first and hear appeals later'

What a strange hill to die on that numerical target has become. “Tens of thousands” was something David Cameron blurted out when pressed on immigration before he became prime minister in 2010. Against advice, his stab in the dark became an official target, and May, then his home secretary, strove to meet it with a zeal that brooked no resistance from business, cabinet colleagues or practical reality. This is what happens when someone who does not treat his work with sufficient seriousness teams up with someone who treats hers with rather too much.

Public anger

The question is not whether, but how, to replace a target that has failed to ease public anger about migration. Even on the Tory right, there is interest in reform that dwells on the type, not the quantity, of newcomers, and does not count an international student as it counts an unskilled worker’s extended family. So why does May resist?

Remote diagnosis of human motivation is always hard, but what seems to unite May and Rudd is insecurity about their right-wing credentials. Both broke through as modern-minded Tories. Both voted to remain in the EU. To stay at or near the summit of their party, both talk up their toughness.

As well as the “hostile environment” that she promised, May once pledged to “deport first and hear appeals later”. Her home office trundled a poster against illegal immigrants around on the back of a van (“106 arrests last week in your area”), to the distaste of even the UK Independence party. In the months after the EU referendum in June 2016, when another politician (including some of those who had campaigned to Leave) might have taken the sting out of the jingoist atmosphere, May tub-thumped with the best of them.

Laxity on this subject will doom a party. Voters are entitled to have their concerns about migration met

Why does such a quiet and measured woman keep succumbing to this tawdriness? The worst interpretation – that she means it – is implausible. After all, she softens in the face of criticism. The vans were retired. The speech against “citizens of nowhere” was explained away as a narrow jibe at the Davos classes. The Windrush cases are offered redress. If her convictions are nativist, she does not have the courage of them.

Winced at crudity

Which is why I sense over-compensation, not ideology, at work. The pattern of her behaviour is that of someone eager to appease a body of opinion she half-understands. Rudd, who once proposed that companies declare their number of foreign workers, does it too. Again, those who winced at her crudity were often some way to her right. Their conservatism did not need proving.

If only there were a way of making this point without defrosting the oldest of political saws. But US president Richard Nixon’s visit to “Red” China in 1972 remains the case study. Past service to the conservative cause can excuse a gesture in the opposite direction. It might take a right-wing, pro-Brexit politician to adopt a sensible immigration policy.

Laxity on this subject will doom a party. Voters are entitled to have their concerns about migration met. But stridency has its own political cost. Consider the Tories’ probable rout in May’s local elections. Their remaining enclaves in London and Manchester could fall.

This is not just because cities host immigrants and their descendants. There are also Britons of centuries standing who do not care for the fouling of the atmosphere in recent years. Having seen Cameron as one of them, urban Britain is again locking out the Tories. Call it a hostile environment. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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