The British people is a fucking idiot.
Not the actual, real people of Britain – but The British People that Amber Rudd was talking to and about in her Conservative Party conference speech this week. Not the people that voted in the EU referendum, but The People that she is using to justify The Same Old Bullshit under the re-branded New & Improved Bullshit following the referendum result. You follow me?
The British People have a life that the Home Secretary understands completely. They is homogenous, and even when she returns surprising voting results for a variety of complex – often competing – motivations, the government gets him. The British People is a racist simpleton, and the government is ready to pander to the lowest common denominator, for as long as it’s expedient. The British People is a newspaper column, a pub bore, a bewildered, stampeding herd.
Speaking to a party committed to further lowering living standards in 2016, it would have been easy to be triumphalist. Especially as the party of government also has a mandate – and, crucially, an historic opportunity – to return Britain to the Victorian era. However, Rudd’s speech was more measured and nuanced.
The government’s response to the chaos of late capitalism is to call for unity while their policies exacerbate and create divisions – of wealth disparity, political partisanship, cultural background. And whilst saying that they’ll be more inclusive and champion working-class interests. What even are we? We are a divided, inward-facing wee island.
In time-honoured tradition, the new Home Secretary used her appointment to make a pitch for the job of Prime Minister with the use of authoritarian rhetoric. John Reid, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and Michael Howard might have been watching, thinking “Good luck with that…”. Theresa May, the only person in recent history to make that pitch successfully, was probably thinking “I’ll need to keep an eye on her”, whilst grinning like the Emperor from Star Wars.
The job of Home Secretary is to make speeches that sound relatively reasonable, whilst also appealing to irrational racists and all the newspapers aimed at them. It’s a tightrope too difficult for most; Charles Clarke and Kenneth Clarke (no relation, as far as I’m aware), for example, both sounded a bit too reasonable, while John Reid and David Blunkett both sounded just a bit too fascist.
One consequence of this remit is to scare the shit out of a lot of public servants, whose jobs are on the line if the latest Home Secratry decides they might actually need to Do Something to throw their weight about, rather than just make speeches that will please The Daily Mail. This would obviously be a disaster, which is why no one who has tried to do it ever stays in the job long enough to do it. Public servants are best-placed to pick apart the type of speech Amber Rudd made this week.
To take just one relatively small example, what she said about international students is worth looking at:
“While an international student is studying here, their family members can do any form of work.”
This is a classic piece of political speech-making: it’s technically true, but is really not true, because it’s so deliberately ignorant of context, with a view to giving an entirely prejudiced opinion of said true facts. Which are: very few students bring their families to the UK when they come to study – most are, like British students, around 18-21 and childless.
Very few students are entitled to bring their families to the UK; in fact, only postgraduate students on courses longer than 12 months whose home governments are sponsoring their study (ie, paying their fees). Those who are entitled to apply aren’t automatically granted visas for their families. So it’s a tiny proportion of the international student population. But to listen to the speech, anyone without prior knowledge of UK Visas & Immigration policy could be forgiven for thinking that there are thousands of students with unknown numbers of family members on dubious visas working several jobs each. Jobs that should be going to British Workers, according to the government.
So, either the Home Secretary is being seriously disingenuous about this, or doesn’t know her own policy. Neither would be especially surprising, but the Home Secretary is not stupid. It puts a bit of doubt around the seemingly-enlightened (ie, rational, human, displaying a minimal concern for vulnerable people) things she said about modern slavery and prosecution of rape cases.
The reason the current – and previous – Home Secretary harps on about student visas on a regular basis is that they are the easiest type of visas to regulate. Which is why the government have been regulating them obsessively for the past five years or so, bringing in petty and spiteful rules. The current Home Secretary, like that former Home Secretary, is hammering universities, even though they only bring in immigrants that the government likes – the ones that pay exorbitantly high fees to British universities and spend money while they’re here and then leave when they finish their studies.
A party with a historical antipathy to university education and widening participation in it are likely to be enthusiastic about reducing student numbers; given the current fervour for reducing the number of immigrants, this is playing to the gallery, traditional conference stuff. The problem for the government is that all the petty, spiteful regulatory changes made recently have been judged to be insufficiently petty and spiteful by a news media who have committed wholesale to the idea of immigration as The Big Problem Of Our Time.
What no Home Secretary has ever explained is why it is necessarily a good thing to reduce migration to the UK. After forty years of people talking about immigration, including about 30 years of people saying they aren’t allowed to talk about immigration, it is now just regarded as unquestionably true that immigration is inherently problematic. Even though “Twenty years ago levels of immigration weren’t really an issue in British politics”, immigration has always been an issue. However, public discourse has continued to move steadily rightwards on this issue as politicians and pressure groups brandish numbers to prove they’re one of The Lads.
And UKIP, a party who now have no official reason to exist, are continuing to push the Conservative Party even further to the right; almost like that was their objective all along.
Now that pandering to ignorant bullshit is considered the first duty of government, the assumption is more entrenched than ever. It could take a generation to have the “reasoned debate” politicians say they want before making unthinking assumptions that sound very much like unreasonable, racist pandering. Even though the debate has been going for decades. Decades in which you weren’t allowed to talk about racism because of the loony left.
And then, following the Home Secretary attacking companies for employing too many foreigners, the new Conservative Prime Minister made a speech advocating borrowing for public spending – following six years of the party saying they had to cut all public services to the bone because borrowing had got out of hand under Labour and they were targeting eliminating the budget deficit. Which they have now quietly abandoned after it obviously didn’t work, and in tacit admission that it wasn’t really that necessary in the first place.
But that’s democracy: an unelected Prime Minister reverses six years of policy enacted by an elected government and we’re all supposed to roll over to have our bellies tickled, because they acknowledge the good, old-fashioned parochial jingoism of The British People….
If you want to parse the effect of the Labour membership surge, look at the Prime Minister’s speech: the fact that she felt the need to use the term “working class” (especially without the suffix “scum” – very restrained) is itself significant. Since the government’s primary concern is rhetoric and image, it’s worth noting that these have shifted in response to challenges from the left, as well as from the right.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as Corrine Bailey Rae once sang.
Remember her? (Me neither.)
What strange times we live in.