Theresa May has been the U.K.’s home secretary for five years. Throughout her time in the job, she has talked—in terms either quite Draconian or very Draconian—about reducing net immigration to Britain.
The latest statistics show that annual net migration to Britain now stands at 330,000, which is a record high.
May has huffed and puffed. She’s looked stern and foreboding.
She has not achieved what she has so consistently said she wants to do, but she has established herself as a tough, uncompromising politician and one of the leading candidates to take over as leader of the Conservative party when David Cameron steps down before the next election, as he has said he will.
At the Conservative party conference today, May’s rhetoric on immigration was harder than it’s ever been.
With Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, talking about returning kindness to British politics and society, the home secretary is talking about a shutting down of that particular quality.
In an uncompromising speech to her party, May said that migrants who are fit enough and wealthy enough to travel to Britain under their own steam should not be offered asylum in Britain. “I want us to reduce the asylum claims made in Britain, and as we do so, increase the number of people we help in the most troubled regions,” she said.
This is convenient because of course the help that she is suggesting would happen abroad, not in Britain, thereby bringing down immigration rates.
It’s also the kind of help that is very easy to promise. Immigration to the U.K. is, May says, forcing people out of work and leading to the undercutting of wages for less well-paid workers.
These claims contradict a report produced by her own department last year, which found that “there is relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labor market in periods when the economy has been strong.” (PDF)
The report’s summary went on to say that what displacement there was, was caused by the state of the economy, not migration.
This speech, though, was not about paying heed to anything as rudimentary as the meticulously detailed research of the people who work for you.
May came out swinging, when she tackled the people who hate her the most: “My message to the immigration campaigners and human-rights lawyers is this—you can play your part in making this happen or you can try to frustrate it.
“But if you choose to frustrate it, you will have to live with the knowledge that you are depriving people in genuine need of the sanctuary our country can offer… There are people who need our help and there are people who are abusing our good will and I know whose side I’m on.”
This differentiation between the poorer people unable to escape conflict and the slightly richer, fitter people able to make it to Europe, has already been attacked by those May was gunning for.
“Trying to create a two tier hierarchy of refugees in the minds of the public is grossly irresponsible”, Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International’s head of policy, said in a statement.
But May emphasized that Britain will distinguish between vulnerable people and migrants “who claim asylum after abusing the visa system or having traveled to get here through safe countries.”
Elsewhere, May talked about sending overseas students home when they finish their studies, limiting benefits for EU migrants in the U.K. and limiting the rights of anyone who marries a European citizen to live in Britain.
The speech was, in short, a smorgasbord of warnings from the right wing of the Conservative party.
May’s speech was criticized by many. Simon Walker, director general of business organization The Institute of Directors, called May’s speech “irresponsible…pandering to anti-immigration sentiment.”
Maurice Wren, chair of the Refugee Council, said: “The Home Secretary’s clear intention to close Britain’s border to refugees fleeing for their lives is thoroughly chilling, as is her bitter attack on the fundamental principle enshrined in international law that people fleeing persecution should be able to claim asylum in Britain.”
Politically, May’s speech was ruthlessly well-timed. The race for the Tory leadership has already begun and with Boris Johnson taking a soft stance on the government’s welfare reforms, May is positioning herself as the candidate the right can trust.
In doing so, she is trying to score political points with the public as well as her party: those partial to an anti-immigrant sentiment or three can look at her and see an ally. Even Nigel Farage approved.
In 2013, May said she wanted to make Britain a “hostile environment” for “illegal migrants”. At the time, a home office official told me that, among many of her employees, May’s nickname was “Darth Vader”.
That nickname seems to remain justified. Today’s speech is already being attacked for containing not a trace of humanity. While its timing makes political sense for May, it looks decidedly troubling as Europe battles to find a communal answer to a humanitarian crisis.
Apart from May’s lack of empathy, another pressing question remains: How would she go about achieving what she says she wants to achieve?
The world is more interconnected than it’s ever been. The cost of travel is low. Information is readily available for those across the globe.
If Britain remains a relatively safe and prosperous place, people will want to go there. Politicians talk about the new, record-breaking migration figures as an aberration, but really they are likely to be the new normal.
The enforcement of the kinds of things May is talking about would require huge investment in new immigration officers at a time when jobs in this area are actually being cut.
When the Home Office did institute a policy of stopping and checking people’s immigration papers, there was a public outcry and the reality of the tough measures was found to be unpalatable.
How will the Home Office send asylum seekers home, when their country of origin will very often not take them back? Will Britain lobby governments around the world to take more migrants? All of these questions are unanswered.
The likelihood, too, is that they will remain unanswered. Asylum seekers only account for 25,000 of the migrants that come to the U.K., so cutting their numbers would be relatively meaningless anyway.
This speech was really about posturing, something that makes its poisonous content all the more contemptible.