Thursday, October 06, 2016

On the new official xenophobia in the United Kingdom

Brexit is something that I've been paying attention to this year. In March, I pointed out that the limited free movement with other Commonwealth countries that some Brexit proponents was offering. (The curious fact that this free movement would be only with rich and white countries is something I noted in passing.) In June, meanwhile, I noted the losses that the United Kingdom would suffer and linked to Zakc Beauchamps' Vox piece noting that, to the considerable extent that migration concerns did impact Brexit, they were at best exaggerated and at worst inaccurate.

Yesterday, my Facebook feed was filled by reactions to an astonishing Financial Times report. I had hoped the reports of Amber Rudd's statements about forcing companies to disclose their foreign workforces were inaccurate, but, alas, no. The Guardian, for one, confirmed this.

Theresa May’s government is facing a growing backlash over a proposal to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ, with business leaders describing it as divisive and damaging.

The proposal was revealed by Amber Rudd, the home secretary, at the Conservative party conference on Tuesday as a key plank of a government drive to reduce net migration and encourage businesses to hire British staff.

However, senior figures in the business world warned the plan would be a “complete anathema” to responsible employers and would damage the UK economy because foreign workers were hired to fill gaps in skills that British staff could not provide. One chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, whose workforce includes thousands of EU citizens, said it was “bizarre”.

The proposals, which are subject to consultation, have also been questioned from within the Conservative party. Lord Finkelstein, the Tory peer, told the BBC it was a “misstep”, while Tory MP Neil Carmichael, chairman of the House of Commons education select committee, said the policy was “unsettling” and would “drive people, business and compassion out of British society and should not be pursued any further”.

[. . .]

Rudd was forced to defend the proposals on Wednesday, insisting they were not xenophobic and that she had been careful about the language used. The home secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that some companies were “getting away” with not training British workers and “we should be able to have a conversation about what skills we want to have in the UK”.

That, as the Independent reported, this proposal is apparently quite popular with the general British public is another point.

It seems clear that the United Kingdom is heading for a hard Brexit, regardless of the poor economic rationale for this. It also seems clear that this will hit Britain's immigrant populations and ethnic minorities badly. In the case of the relatively recent European Union migrants from Poland and elsewhere, this might even trigger return migrations, to their homelands or elsewhere. I'm reminded of how France's Polish immigrant community first began to grow sharply in the 1920s following the displacement of ethnic Polish workers from the German Ruhr. Will Germany end up the main beneficiary of post-2004 Polish migrants, as I speculated it might have had 2004 gone differently?

The biggest lesson to take from Brexit is this: Whatever else it was about, Brexit was not about opening up the UK to the wider world. This is made clear by the aftermath, still unfolding. If the British government is to adopt a policy of naming and shaming companies which employ foreign workers, with even Irish migrants possibly coming under the aegis of these regulations, it's laughable to say that the United Kingdom is going to globalize.

Maria Farrell's mournful post at Crooked Timber, recapitulating Stefan Zweig's mourning for the open borders of pre-First World War Europe, is entirely appropriate. These losses are terribly sad, and so avoidable if only Britain had more leaders who cared about their country's future.

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