THERE was no doubting the most controversial speech at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month: Theresa May being tough (or appearing to talk tough – after all she’s already been Home Secretary for more than five years) on both legal and illegal immigration.
The speech led to howls of protest from a variety of quarters, not just the usual self-interests on the liberal left but also from the Institute of Directors whose own director general, Simon Walker, described it as “yet another example of the Home Secretary turning away the world’s best and brightest, putting internal party politics ahead of the country, and helping our competitor economies instead of our own”.
Calling the image of the job-stealing immigrant a “myth”, he continued: “Immigrants do not steal jobs, they help fill vital skill shortages and, in doing so, create demand and more jobs.” Political leaders should “stop vilifying migrants and acknowledge the hugely important contribution they make to this country’s economy”.
In one respect Mr Walker is perfectly correct. If he genuinely believes that the current level of immigration is good for his members’ interests then he has not just a right, but a fiduciary duty, to say so. The people he represents are, the end of the day, running businesses, not standing for parliament.
Having said that, others might detect in Mr Walker’s comments confirmation of a certain blinkered view of immigration held by those not adversely affected by it.
It seems doubtful, for example, if many IoD members, or their wives or children, experience long waits at their GP surgery because of an influx of people into their neighbourhood, for whom English is a second language if, indeed, they speak it at all.
Nor will their own children’s schooling be held back for the same reason because almost certainly they will either be educated privately or their parents will have effectively ‘bought’ the very best in state education by purchasing a home within a high-value, middle class, catchment zone.
And after graduating from university they are unlikely to face competition for professional jobs from immigrants although should the influx of foreigners continue at its present rate that may not continue for much longer.
Mr Walker’s comments also highlight a disconnect between contemporary business owners and company directors and the great reforming, nonconformist industrialists of the past.
These men knew how to turn a profit but they were also committed to the health and social and cultural welfare of their workers. A notable example was the planned settlement of New Lanark, started as far back as 1786 by David Dale and developed by his son-in-law, Robert Owen, where the mills were complemented by model tenements plus schools and other facilities.
South of the Border, there was Saltaire in Bradford and Port Sunlight in Cheshire, the latter the brainchild of Lord Leverhulme (of ‘Persil’ fame) who, incidentally donated a row of replica cottages, still in use today, to the City of Glasgow following the Great Exhibition of 1901.
To the modern mind, these initiatives might now seem rather condescending and paternalistic but at least they showed that the bosses cared about their employees after they left the factory gates of an evening.
Perhaps employer organisations should ask why immigrants are required to “help fill vital skill shortages” when, almost 20 years ago, the last Labour government started throwing additional billions at tertiary education which included greatly expanding the universities.
Or for that matter, why immigrants are needed to fill unskilled jobs when there are tens of thousands of basically healthy young British men and women who spend their days watching daytime telly because the government effectively undercuts wages through the benefits system.
George Osborne’s latest highly-controversial change to tax credits actually targets the working poor more than the idle poor.
This issue is too often seen through the prism of ‘Lazy Brits/hard-working Poles, Latvians and Bulgarians’ yet I suspect that even our own Jeremy Kyle generation might get off their lardy bottoms and seek work in Eastern Europe if the reward was a wage four to seven times what they could earn back in Britain.
Immigration may be good for business balances now but it surely is not the long-term solution to what is a much wider problem.
NAT CONFERENCES AND THE BRITISH ‘SOCIAL UNION’
WHILE the Conservatives were gathering in Manchester, somewhat ironically I was staying 35 miles away at the former magnet for top Tories at this time of year, back in the days when Blackpool was the bi-annual venue for the party conference.
As one gets older, there comes a desire to achieve small ambitions based in earlier experiences, hence my stay at Blackpool’s legendary Imperial Hotel. As a child I spent several happy family holidays in the resort, always on the more genteel North Shore, which according to my mother was for “respectable folk” and far enough away from the seedier Central and South pier areas. Our boarding house was so clean breakfast could have been eaten from the dining room carpet; but it was still lodgings (one toilet for each floor) and on another planet from the Imperial, just a few hundred yards away.
From the outside, the Imperial today looks as impressive as ever. Parts of the interior are a bit tired but evidence of its past sense of importance greets you at the check-in desk, with its five clocks in the panelled wall above – one for ‘Blackpool time’ and four others for the equivalent times in Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Tokyo. We paid top whack for one of the best rooms and my wife and I mused over which political giants from the past had shared the same four walls – Thatcher, Macmillan, perhaps even Churchill?
Sadly, in recent years the Conservatives (and Labour) have abandoned Blackpool as a conference venue, while the Lib Dems were never very keen – a big, brash, garish seaside resort popular with the working class not being the sort of place that generally appeals to tree-huggers and sandals-wearers.
Blackpool Town Council is trying to woo the two main parties back but perhaps a more productive target would be the SNP, whose conference, held this month at Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, attracted complaints about the venue’s isolated location and the cost of catering services.
As to why the SNP should even think about holding its annual gathering in ‘foreign’ territory, it is worth recalling the frequent reassurances given during the referendum campaign that a ‘Yes’ vote would not turn England into a totally foreign country.
Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon emphasised their commitment to a continuation of the ‘British social union’, as they sought to allay the fears of those many thousands of Scots with a granny in Gateshead, a brother in Bolton, a sister in Solihull or cousins in Colchester.
Indeed, at the close of the most recent SNP conference, the Westminster leader, Angus Robertson, told journalists that any future referendum campaign would focus on wooing English-born voters resident in Scotland as clearly not enough had been done to persuade them of the benefits of independence.
A conference in Blackpool, or anywhere in England, would no doubt stick in the craw of fundamentalists but others might see some benefit from such a bold and brazen decision.
After all, the SNP is now the third largest political party in Great Britain and – as the recent controversy over EVEL has indicated – appears to have abandoned a previous commitment of not involving itself in non-Scottish issues at Westminster.