Friday, 7 October 2016

Theresa May’s Vision Thing has the look of a Nasty Country

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, set out her stall for a post Brexit Britain, in her main speech to this week’s Tory Party conference. I lost count of the number of times she mentioned the ‘working class’ and much of the rhetoric was clearly aimed at trying to appeal to Labour voters who voted to the leave the European Union (EU). These voters, about a third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, were not crucial in delivering the leave vote, but could give her a healthy majority in the UK’s next general election.

May’s pledge not to reduce employment rights for workers from those available in the EU, is welcome, as is the proposal to reduce tax dodging by businesses and wealthy individuals, but all government’s say this sort of thing (David Cameron when Prime Minister, did so), and then they do very little about it.

May's assertion that companies know that they are part of the community, is reminiscent of a 1950s family run firm, and a world away from the culture of big multi-national corporations that dominate neo-liberal capitalism. They may make their employees do a few shifts at a foodbank or such like, but they are sharks in general. The only thing that matters to these businesses is share value, everything else is subordinate this. They have no national or community loyalties, they only exist to maximise the return on capital investment.

The 1950s analogy extends to May’s announcement of her intention to re-introduce grammar schools, with the risible claim that this will improve the life chances of a majority of children from poorer backgrounds, when it will worsen them. It reminds me of ex-Tory Prime Minister, John Major’s 1993 speech about his vision of Britain as of a ‘country of long shadows on county (cricket) grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and - as George Orwell said - “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.” A long gone era, when Britain still had traces of empire, not a blue print for a modern Britain, just a misty eyed mythical nostalgia for the past.

What makes May’s vision more pernicious than Major’s is her immigration proposals. First, there is May’s insistence on using EU citizens already residing in the UK as a bargaining chip in negotiations on Brexit. Even Brexiteers like Michael Gove, have said this is wrong, because it is basically a ‘decency’ thing. Now we hear that UK businesses will be required to publicly display how many foreigners they employ and the re-heating of ex-Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown’s, ‘British jobs for British workers’ mantra.

May has form of course, as Home Secretary sending vans around immigrant areas, telling people to ‘go home’ and attacks on human rights. The enforced display of immigrant numbers by businesses is probably driven by a realisation that immigration to the UK will not reduce significantly. Given the sharp rise in hate crime against foreigners we have seen post the Brexit vote, this kind of talk is dangerous as well as disgraceful.

Roy Hattersley, ex deputy leader of the Labour Party, lamenting the tactics of new Labour, observed that new Labour appealed to the worst instincts of Labour voters, with patriotism, immigration and welfare bashing rhetoric, rather than old Labour who appealed to the working classes best instincts of community, mutuality and social solidarity.

When Cameron was newly elected leader of the Tory Party, he tried to tap into this second seam to some extent, with his ideas of social enterprises and the ‘big society’. It appears that May wants to go down the new Labour route, in appealing to the worst instincts of the working class.

Ironically, for a consciously pro-business party, all of what we have heard this week will put May at odds with large parts of the business community, who value immigration to grow their businesses. By prioritising immigration over membership of the European Single Market, businesses will likely want to be compensated for having to pay tariffs to trade in the EU as well, which will fall on British taxpayers. If this is not forthcoming, businesses will vote with their feet, and move their operations abroad, which is starting to happen already. I know of someone who works at a large insurance under-writer company currently based in the City of London, who are moving to Dublin. Surely, they will not be the only company to do so.

I can’t see a Tory government in reality attempting to buck economic globalisation, it is not in their DNA, despite all of the fine talk from Theresa May. Trade deals will not be free, either a tariff will need to be paid, making British exports and imports more expensive, or trading partners will demand concessions on tax and access to privatising what is left of our public services.

The idea that those who do worst out of globalisation, will suddenly live in a land of plenty and opportunity after Brexit, is a fantasy under a Tory government. What we will be left with is a race to the bottom, under cutting other nations on corporate taxes, but with a reputation around the world for nastiness to foreigners. Our government appears to be trialling Donald Trump’s policy ideas. I do fear that Britain is going to be a country that I don’t feel very comfortable living in.     

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