Isolationist May leads the return of ‘the nasty party’

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Theresa May: getting tough on immigration

There’s a little bit of a racist in each of us. It is a trait that must be confronted, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Fear of the unknown is programmed into our psyche, and we are sensitised to people who are “different”.

It is a defence mechanism. Our caveman ancestors had to be wary of other tribes; that is one of the reasons why we have flourished as a species.

But times have changed. We don’t live in caves any more; and our ‘tribes’ are too big to be manageable, they are counted in millions, not in hundreds. Most of us now live in urban environments; we hunt and gather in supermarkets, and many of us live apart from our extended families.

In the modern world, survival depends not just on how we look after ourselves, but also on how we look after one another – across borders not just across the road.

On the face of it, we are not doing very well at making that adjustment.

The gap between rich and poor is growing, as is the gulf between developed and developing economies. We live in one of the richest, yet there are people relying on food banks.

We need compassionate leadership, but as anyone listening to the Conservative conference will have heard, there is an increasing harshness in the political rhetoric.

For all the talk of “common ground” (the new Tory in-phrase), the lack of compassion in the words, and more importantly actions, of Britain’s ruling party presents a major problem for those who believe social justice cannot be advanced by dumping on the working poor.

One of the week’s most depressing speeches came from Theresa May. For all the Tory opposition to protectionism, there’s always been an isolationist undercurrent in their politics.

May brought that into the open with an assault on migrants. The home secretary, who wants to lead her party, promised a crackdown on people seeking protection from persecution. Refugees face being sent home if the British government deems the threat to them no longer exists.

In addition to refugees seeking their basic human right of asylum, May also turned on migrants who travel to the UK for work. She told the conference: “When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society.

“It’s difficult for schools and hospitals and core infrastructure like housing and transport to cope. And we know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.”

This was the woman who once warned the Conservatives against becoming the “nasty party”.

That last bastion of left-wing dogma, the Institute of Directors, condemned her. It knows the future success of the economy depends on migrant workers – that was the case in the past (when the Irish were among those who helped rebuild post-war Britain), it is now, and it will be in the future.

IoD Director General Simon Walker said: “We are astonished by the irresponsible rhetoric and pandering to anti-immigration sentiment from the home secretary. It is 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.”

And in that notorious left-wing rag The Daily Telegraph commentator James Kirkup described it as “awful, ugly, misleading, cynical and irresponsible”.

The facts contradict May’s claims. There is no evidence that immigrants take people’s jobs, indeed research shows they contribute positively to economic growth.

May’s game is to play to our prejudices. She wants to bring out the Neanderthal in us. As I suggested at the beginning, evolution has not have eradicated our hard-wired suspicion of others. But civilization has given us the tools to keep prejudice in its place.

Most of us are descended from migrants, we all have friends and family who have built lives elsewhere, many of us have migrated ourselves – 20 miles, 200 miles, 2,000 miles.

May wasn’t just talking about people fleeing war, poverty and death in the Middle East or north Africa; or economic hardship in eastern Europe, she was talking about us.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on October 9