I saw Cameron invading the home of some Albanian immigrants from the corner of my eye on the BBC news yesterday. I was making pancakes, in my pyjamas, on a weekday afternoon, and I wasn’t really paying attention to the TV. I gathered that these Albanians are to be seen as workshy bastards who’ve been conning good honest Brits like myself out of money, of course. But because I was half-watching I didn’t register how fucking outrageous the publicity stunt itself was until today when I saw this article. For the four men concerned this will have been a particularly unpleasant and probably frightening experience. Cameron’s grotesque manipulation of a police raid for his own ends- apart from being of dubious legality- was in extremely poor taste.
The stunt was intended to promote Cameron’s persecution of ‘illegal immigrants’, which comes as part of a barrage aimed at immigrants more generally, with perfectly legal EU immigrants seeing the duration of their benefit (JSA, Child Tax Credit, Child Benefit) entitlements cut from 6 to 3 months (the Tories, a few months ago, introduced a waiting period of 3 months before which EU immigrants could claim JSA). These two policies don’t seem particularly related in a practical sense. But they are related philosphically, because the purpose of all this is to enhance the Tories’ credibility among people who don’t like the very concept of foreigners, regardless of where they’re from. This the effect of UKIP creating a divide on the right of British politics; the Tories now have to work harder to establish their xenophobe credentials. But they’re not the only ones, Labour too is buying in to the ‘tough on immigration’ narrative, and arguing that they’d have cut EU migrants’ benefit entitlements ages ago.
The first thing to note about the change to the benefits system is that it doesn’t actually prevent anybody from the EU coming to Britain, it just threatens those who do with dire poverty. EU migrants will not be compelled to leave the UK after 3 months of claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance, they’ll just be unable to keep claiming. That will, one imagines, make some feel compelled to leave- which is the aspect of this that the Tories are promoting- but it will also make people from the EU who find themselves in Britain more desperate to find work, any work.
The Tories have been demonising immigrants by using the notion that they deprive British people of jobs. As proponents of liberal economics, the Tories don’t actually believe this to be the case; their view would be that cheap labour increases profits, boosting private investment, and therefore creating more jobs for everyone. The effect of reducing the amount of time EU migrants to Britain can claim benefits will be to incentivise them to accept absolutely any work they can get. Which, of course, will push them towards cheaper labour and poorer conditions. Anybody who’s embracing this change in legislation because they see it as helping British job-seekers is missing what the Tories are really up to: this making competition between workers fiercer by making cupboards barer.
It’s useful to the government to give people somebody other than the elite to blame for lower living standards, though, and this headline-grabbing move has the advantage of putting the bogey man that is ‘the benefit scrounger’ back in the public consciousness. When it comes to turning ordinary people against one another, there are lots of lots of fault lines along which the government can create friction and prevent unity: Public sector vs Private sector, immigrant vs indigenous, out of work vs employed… The ‘immigrant scrounger’ is doubly-hateable and ripe for stigmatising. But is it a genuine problem? Not according to The European Commission, whose 2013 study concluded that ‘benefit tourism’ was ‘neither widespread nor systematic’. And not according to the European Committee of Social Rights, who in 2012 said of the UK benefits system;
“even if the minimum levels of short term and long term incapacity benefits, state pension and job seeker’s allowance may satisfy the requirements of the European Code of Social Security, they are manifestly inadequate in the meaning of Article 12§1 of the Charter as they fall below 40% of the Eurostat median equivalised income”
This is supported by this Institute for the Study of Labour research which found that UK unemployment benefits were less generous than the EU average (Table 3) In other words; if you’re one of these mythical ‘benefit tourists’ Britain is a pretty shitty choice. The Tories are fighting an illusory enemy.
Cameron claimed that his reforms to immigrants’ benefit entitlements would save the UK taxpayer £500,000,000 over the next 5 years. But as Anthony Reuben estimates, the true total will be nowhere near this amount. The true figure is unknown, and unknowable because there are no official figures, but this policy will effect a tiny number of people relatively speaking. It’s not being done for fiscal reasons, and even if it was, those fiscal reasons wouldn’t be significant enough to warrant so much publicity. Instead it’s another example of using the perceived need for austerity to demonise a section of society and promote right-wing ideals in the media.
It’s hard not to bring everything I post on here back to the subject of the referendum, and there’s a risk, perhaps, of putting forward the false sense that Independence will be a panacea. It’s clear, however, that Scottish people are less hostile to immigration and that a Scottish government with the power to control its own borders would be more likely to encourage it. Scotland needs immigration, and the approach taken by Westminster, as well as being morally repugnant and motivated by the desire to pander to racism, is counter-productive for Scotland. We need to break away from the xenophobia and stupidity of the British nationalism that drives Westminster immigration policy.