It is perhaps to be expected that such social Luddites as join UKIP exhibit a knee-jerk to the ‘furriners’ who reputedly begin at Calais and the backwoodsman phalanx that dominates the Tory party regularly paint themselves into xenophobic corners over Johnny Foreigner. But when the Labour party—that supposed redoubt of international socialism—starts laying about foreign workers with comparable venom, it is time to wonder if the normally civilised and tolerant English have lost the plot altogether.
Leave aside the current Eurospat in which Cameron & Co. make us all look like a bunch of petulant schoolkids who want their bus money back because they didn’t play in Saturday’s away game. Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant has teed up a speech (leaked to the press) in which he berates Tesco and Next for favouring Eastern European workers over British. He said:
“Look at Next Plc, who last year brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmsall warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer. They were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation.”
The spat with Tesco also has to do with distribution centres (this time in Kent) but the detail is not particularly relevant. At a time when jobs and efficiencies are pivotal in securing whatever recovery can be achieved, interfering with commerce at this level of detail not only limbs politicians as meddlers who rate profile above effectiveness and show little clue of the rather brutal dynamics that drive commerce, from which we all have benefitted over the last half-century of growth and personal affluence.
We should first be quite clear how abysmal the UK’s performance has been since the fiscal crisis hit six years ago. Whereas in Scandinavian countries (who had not let their banks play silly buggers with other people’s money) there was barely a dip and Germany was more profoundly affected but, as a major exporter of world-class engineering, they are back in serious growth, the Brits still languish amongst the PIGS—the fiscal basket cases whose riches had more in common with the emperor’s clothes than substantive investments. Their growth is either negative or marginal.
Like the USA, Britain fell into the trap of thinking that profits from financial instruments, such as were being traded by the trillion in 2007, were worth what was printed on the paper. But mortgages on houses in now-bankrupt Detroit, held by people without jobs or means to pay for them, was compounded folly on a global scale that came home to roost and has been eating our lunch ever since.
If the continued financial doldrums were not close enough to rigor mortis (growth under 1% is illusory growth, especially when the BRICs are still powering on with 6-8%) Britain seems to think it can indulge in all sorts of protectionist projects, as if the good times of the nineties and noughties were still with us. It is as if the beggar-my-neighbour lessons of the strike-prone, inflation-infested seventies had never been. Teachers insist on raises knowing that shrinking budgets will then mean fewer teachers and worse education. Everyone complains that benefits are being cut and—whether by bedroom tax or some equal horror—people will get poorer. But, though we may be unused to this, it’s reality. Get used to it because it has a ways to run yet.
For a major spokesperson like Labour’s Bryant to berate firms for following what firms were created to do—make a profit out of running a business—is the kind of luxury that both Wilson and Callaghan indulged in during those dark days. They were socialists; socialists taxed the rich and so the 90% tax rate was born. Never mind that most really rich people avoided it through shell or offshore companies and residences, they were standing up for the horny-handed workers that had elected them.
The problem these days is that the jobs over which we are now squabbling are no longer the Detroit- or Dagenham-style skilled factory jobs making cars and good wages but service jobs shifting boxes and broccoli in distribution centres for minimum wage. If the official position from major parties lies between fending off entrepreneurial individuals who have moved here to work for a better life from having the jobs they can find and trying to prevent them from arriving in the first place, then the UK is bankrupt in many ways besides the more obvious financial.
Forget the Irish and the Highlanders of the Victorian era who flooded to industrial Scotland—and everyone got richer. Think of the Italians of the twenties, the Asians of the sixties and seventies. Was our society and business not enriched by their contributions? When Jamaicans and other West Indians landed by the boatload in England in the fifties, did they not take jobs others disdained—and everyone got richer as a result?
What’s wrong with English politicians of all parties that they want to pull up drawbridges and keep out the world in case it is too competitive for us? Adam Smith would be appalled; the founders of the East India Company or the Hudson’s Bay company or Jardine Matheson or HSBC would be appalled. Even John Maclean, who believed in the dignity of hard work and concomitant decent wages, might be appalled.
Is this what the country that dares to still call itself “Great” Britain, that just one century ago bestrode the world like a colossus because of its dominant place in international trade, has come to? America became great through welcoming the world’s “huddled masses yearning to be free“. If the UK can’t tolerate a few Poles willing to work hard to achieve the good life, why would we Scots want to be any part of such a tawdry failure?