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‘Foreigners’ on notice in today’s unwelcoming UK
The recent stirring up of sentiment against ‘foreigners’ by UK government ministers risks damaging the economy and, at a deeper level, society. Ultimately everyone will be affected if hatred and contempt towards minorities continue to rise.
At the Conservative Party conference the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, promised even more drastic measures to “control immigration”. She said that “this Government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of the British people first.”
This included possibly jailing landlords who rent to tenants not authorised to be in the UK, and making it harder for colleges to recruit overseas students. A briefing note proposed forcing companies to make public “the proportion of their workforce which is international”.
Theresa May, the Prime Minister, also indicated that overseas doctors serving UK patients might be sent away when enough local medical students have been trained.
She said, “There will be staff here from overseas in that interim period until the further number of British doctors are able to be trained and come on board in terms of being able to work in our hospitals.” When questioned later she responded, “It will be for hospitals to decide who they employ in terms of the openings they have.”
At the conference in Birmingham, several politicians tried to show that they were responding to the concerns that led to the Brexit vote. However instead of reversing government policies which have damaged public services and communities in disadvantaged areas, they stoked up xenophobic and racist sentiment.
Rudd did say she believed that “immigration has brought many benefits to the nation. It has enhanced our economy, our society and our culture.” However “it’s only by reducing the numbers back down to sustainable levels that we can change the tide of public opinion” so that “immigration is something we can all welcome.”
But the measures she described fostered the image of non-UK citizens as a threat to British jobs or even criminals. And many black and minority ethnic people with citizenship are likely to be affected by constant checking.
She warned that the government would be consulting on “whether we should tighten the test companies have to take before recruiting from abroad” and “whether our student immigration rules should be tailored to the quality of the course and the quality of the educational institution.”
The likely damage to the economy – especially when some firms are already relocating elsewhere or thinking of doing so – is hard to estimate. The sciences, arts and humanities may be badly affected too.
Unusually, opposition parties and the Confederation of British Industry were united in their dismay. Media coverage of plans to, in effect, “name and shame” employers who hired non-British staff were more mixed.
Those whom firms would have an incentive not to employ would presumably include not only those hired from abroad but also people settled in the UK for decades, often from the Commonwealth. Others who are married to, or parents of, citizens would also be among those who might find it harder to get work.
May’s remarks further undermine morale among the professionals working under heavy pressure in today’s overstretched NHS. And recruiting staff from overseas may get harder.
Her conference speech, on the one hand, paid lip-service to overcoming social divisions. For instance she expressed concern that “People in ethnic minority households are almost twice as likely to live in relative poverty as white people.” On the other hand, she tapped into, and stoked, the often unacknowledged racism and mistrust of other cultures still common in UK society. She claimed that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
In addition, she backed the Defence Secretary’s earlier pledge that some human rights laws, protecting overseas civilians’ right to life and liberty, would no longer apply to soldiers on active service. To loud applause, the Prime Minister said that “we will never again – in any future conflict – let those activist, left-wing human rights lawyers harangue and harass the bravest of the brave – the men and women of Britain’s Armed Forces.”
There have been horrific cases of abuse and murder in Iraq which have come to light. For instance, last month a judge condemned British troops who forced a 15-year-old boy, Ahmed Jabbar Kareem Ali, into a canal and let him drown.
Some of the delegates may have regarded it as appalling that British troops, mainly white, should be held to account for inflicting suffering or death on mere Arabs. However such attitudes should be challenged by leaders, not reinforced.
Not all conference speakers played along with fuelling negativity towards foreigners and ethnic minorities. The Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson took a different tack. She said she had seen “British troops protect civilians in war” and “watched our businesses trade and support nations abroad… That strong, proud, virtuous internationalism that has so shaped our national character cannot be cowed by the challenges of the day.”
In talking about managing borders, “let us not forget that behind discussions of numbers and rules and criteria, there lies people and homes and families. And for those who have already chosen to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say this is your home, and you are welcome here.”
If scapegoating and exclusion win out over welcoming and respecting those from other nations and ethnicities, there will be a heavy social, economic and spiritual price to pay. Faith communities and other people of goodwill have a tough challenge to face if the situation is to be transformed.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church(Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613