On Saturday, László Andor of the European Commission spoke to The Guardian about David Cameron’s speech on immigration, given on the 25th March, warning the PM that his language might provoke “knee-jerk xenophobia” from the electorate. Andor’s words were an understatement: Britain has been swimming in knee-jerk xenophobia since time immemorial, and certain media services will always step up to respond predictably. (Right on cue, on March 26th, The Daily Mail published an article titled, “Keep ’em out, Dave? They’re already here!”)
In his “attack” on the Prime Minister’s speech, Andor focused mainly on debunking the myths, tactfully avoiding a robust deconstruction of the speech itself. If he had chosen a more strident response, he could have picked on two things: the obvious evasiveness of the PM’s phrasing and rhetoric, and importantly, the racist-baiting language – which sometimes drifted from provoking xenophobia into supporting it.
I wouldn’t have expected the speech to be anything but vacuous – immigration is one of those issues that often prompts verbal pussy-footing, because it’s so easy to come across as racist or ineffectual. As usual, Cameron’s way of avoiding any repercussions was to say nothing in a lot of words. The former Brasenose student created a great deal of confusion as to the precise meaning of many of his assertions by refusing to define his terms or lay down the parameters for his suggested changes. At his most decisive and confident, Cameron threatened to “give migrants from the European Economic Area a very clear message”, and said that the authorities are going to “get much better” at chasing up foreigners’ NHS fees. Really cracking down, then.
If you stopped listening and let the speech wash over you, Cameron sounded a lot more aggressive and nationalistic than his proposals actually are. This is what was cunning about his speech. The Conservative leader couldn’t propose real change along the lines he suggested, because it would definitely be classed as discriminatory; however, he could pretend to take the hard line, impressing those Tory voters who are edging towards UKIP. According to Cameron, “British taxpayers should support British families and those who contribute to our economy”; it’s a statement which suggests no action, but preaches an ideology that privileges Brits over immigrants unconditionally. Note the separation of ‘British families’ and ‘those who contribute to our economy’. Presumably, his first category includes ‘British families’ who do not contribute to our economy? If you’re measuring a person by economic input, as the rest of the speech suggests, why privilege ‘British families’ over other families? What is a ‘British family’ in this case? It seems that he thinks migrants are not ‘British’, and perhaps never will be (he included “Polish war heroes” in the group earlier), yet he never clarifies where he draws the line.
Cameron’s speech also had vague but important implications for welfare provisions such as social housing. He said that only migrants who have “contributed to this country for at least two years” will be able to qualify for housing, and that “what this should mean is that local people rightly get priority in the social housing system”. Again, ‘local people’ are set against ‘migrants’ – yet an immigrant living close to a council house is a ‘local person’ too. Perhaps he means people who were born in a particular area, but then, what about second generation immigrants – have they entered the sacred conclave of the ‘British’ yet? Cameron’s suggestion is far too imprecise to be implemented, but if laws were introduced in the same spirit as his statement, then the system would favour ‘locals’ over migrants, endangering the fairness of allocation; what’s more, for the first two years, local people would always get precedence over migrants. How could this ever be deemed right in a selection process in a supposed liberal democracy? Equal treatment may be an illusion, but it’s still an ideal, surely?
The key to this xenophobia is that it is designed to deter new EU migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, whose countries will be admitted into the EU later this year. EU migrants have the right to enter, stay and remain in any other EU country, so simply imposing stricter immigration controls is not possible in this case. As an alternative, Cameron is brandishing these internal welfare changes to put potential migrants off. It may well put some people off, but only because it seems like a promise of discrimination against them. This is not Cameron announcing, “We will not give you something for nothing”. It’s Cameron saying, “We will not give you anything at all if we can help it”.
Cameron’s speech was fluffy and uninformative, but very clear on one thing: young migrants are economic tools, and as soon as they are not economically useful, xenophobia is justified. If a Romanian’s business fails, he is no longer the “hard-working entrepreneur” for whom Cameron is “rolling out the red carpet” – he becomes an immigrant first and foremost, and a less valuable human being than a Brit in the same economic circumstances. Cameron knows that Conservative bread is buttered on the ‘British’ side, so his safest bet is to toy with existing conflicts, blaming the economic downturn on immigrant ‘benefit tourism’ – and currying favour with John Bull in the process.