A Queen’s speech ruined by absurd anti-immigration measures

Published in The Guardian (May 8th, 2013)

There is something reassuringly Ruritanian about the rituals associated with the Queen’s speech, from those flunkies in gold-trimmed finery to the words written on vellum in ink that takes three days to dry. Yet the monarch proclaimed a message purporting to be unflinchingly modern: that the world is changing fast and the coalition’s first priority is to ensure Britain can compete and thrive.

Quite right. Yet this makes it all the more alarming that headlines are being dominated by measures underlining how the government is adopting an increasingly reactionary pose at odds with global realities. For the programme drips with hostility to immigration, although this is – like it or not – a key rock upon which the nation’s growth can be rebuilt. Instead, landlords must make more checks against illegal entrants, businesses face bigger fines for using illegal foreign labour and there are fresh moves to make it easier to deport foreign criminals.

The overall tone is clear: foreigners are flooding over here and taking our jobs, our benefits, our houses. This is, of course, a panicky response to the rise of Ukip – but it is one utterly wrong on commercial, economic and even the narrowest of party political grounds, pandering to ill-informed prejudice rather than putting the interests of the country first. Already the immigration cap is undermining higher education, one of our few world-beating sectors. Yet Labour, going through its own masochistic contortions on this issue, is unlikely to offer resistance; shamefully, it seems determined to outflank from the right.

Study after study show migrants are more likely to start new businesses and substantially less likely than the native population to claim benefits. After all, they tend to be young, healthy and come here – sometimes risking their lives – to earn money, increasing their new nation’s prosperity. Performance in London’s schools has improved to a remarkable degree during recent waves of mass immigration.

The government has opted to kowtow to one section of the electorate: those old, pessimistic and predominantly male voters frightened – not unreasonably – at a time of immense change amid economic storms. And the Tories in particular are putting short-term tactical considerations over longer-term strategic considerations, ignoring the more pressing need to attract younger, female and ethnic minority voters rather than rely on grumpy old men.

Any sense of rationalism is squeezed out, yet one could also point out that a government pledged to fight bureaucracy should not be piling needless red tape on to private businesses to resolve long-term failures elsewhere.

Sadly, this series of half-formed, headline-grabbing measures undermine a programme that otherwise has some sensible strands. It is right to press on with the high-speed rail link, strengthen hospital inspections, improve consumer rights in the digital age and boost the rights of carers. The planned cap on social care costs makes a start on sorting out a mess – although it ignores bigger problems faced by the four in 10 people in residential care homes without assets to sell, often forced to rely on dwindling local authority funding. Mind you, it is also worth pointing out that the fewer migrants we have here, the harder it is to find carers and to fund old age.

There was also one item missing that offers hope the government is adopting a more modern approach to the world in one area at least: a bill to enshrine the anachronistic target of handing over 0.7% of national income in overseas aid. A small solace amid this depressing debate on our stance in a globalised world.

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