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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Today is not a good day to be a Lib Dem

Yesterday's news was dominated by talk of an independence White Paper, which I'm still attempting to make sense of before expressing my thoughts on its contents.

Today, talk is of immigration. More specifically, it is of the government's plans to remove basic support from some individuals on the basis of their country of origin.

It's not often I wish the media would spend more time exploring the merits of the Scottish independence debate, but today is one of those rare occasions. It's been a day when the Conservative and Labour parties have shown why no liberal could ever support them, but also one in which the Liberal Democrats have failed to stand up and be counted.

Those who know me well probably tire of me telling them about my grandfather, who was a Polish "immigrant". In a sense it's irrelevant, and of course the political and social context of the 1940s is quite different to that of the present day. But I am the grandson of an immigrant, and due to my family's Eastern European connections have always known several foreigners who have made the UK their home. My own family were Polish Jews, and my grandfather fought in the RAF. There were others like him in the years that followed - others who, without support to establish themselves here, would never have been able to go forward to find work, run businesses, integrate themselves into society and create successful new lives.

We now have a government that seeks to deny such opportunity. The Prime Minister has today announced plans to:

* prevent new migrants receiving out-of-work benefits for the first three months.
* stop benefit payments being made after six months unless the claimant has a "genuine" chance of a job.
* preventing new migrants being able to claim Housing Benefit immediately.
* deport those caught begging or sleeping rough, with no return within a year.
* quadruple fines for employers not paying the minimum wage.

Only the final proposal has any significant merit from the perspective of actually ensuring wider access to employment. What will the effect of other such plans other than to deny the poorest and most vulnerable of incomers a real opportunity to build a new life for themselves, or even to find work? How can someone find a job when they lack even the most basic "privileges"? Furthermore, how is it in any way just for the government to essentially be forcing people to sleep rough by denying them housing benefit, only then to deport them for it?

The definition of what might constitute a "genuine" chance of a job might, and how this is to be demonstrated or evidenced, is highly questionable - not to mention subjective.

This represents arguably the most xenophobic set of proposals put forward by a UK government since the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968. David Cameron has claimed that these plans are justified, as "Britain expects fairness". You could argue that Britain is always expecting, which accounts for why so many see her as the Mother Country. But if Britain does indeed expect fairness, it isn't what's being promised today.

In what way is it fair that the only foreigners allowed entry into the UK will be those who have the means to maintain themselves for at least several months? Is it fair that we can effectively deny people essentials on the basis of nationality? Is it fair that we can discriminate against one section of society, deprive them of basic human rights but then claim it is acceptable as these people are "immigrants"?

It is not fairness in action that we're witnessing, but a shamefully dishonest and discriminatory scheme that will create unnecessary human misery without actually doing anything to significantly deal with legitimate problems.

Kelly-Marie Blundell, the impressive PPC for Guildford, used facebook to state that "if you take a human being, and you deny them food, that's unacceptable. And by proposing to remove fundamental benefits from someone, that's denying them food, and is therefore unacceptable. To then stamp this behaviour with 'immigrants' is abhorrent, xenophobic and tantamount to abuse on the basis of country of origin." Another Liberal Democrat, Stephen Tall, wrote in response to what he termed Immigration Hysteria Day: "most importantly of all, we [Liberal Democrats] stick up for liberal values, values that are under assault from the combined conservative forces of our governing partners, the official opposition and most of the press – because that’s when our campaigning, our determination to stick up for the underdog, matters most."

I joined the Lib Dems for many reasons, but among them was a belief in the freedom of people to live and work where they choose. It seems illogical to me when those, like the Prime Minister, who believe in the free movement of capital do not believe in the free movement of people.

It is sufficiently depressing that the government has made these proposals. Worse still is the response of the Labour which, rather than fight the plans, has merely suggested the Conservatives should have acted sooner - Yvette Cooper accused Cameron of stealing Labour ideas. And where were the Liberal Democrats to "stick up for the underdog"? Reportedly telling the BBC that "the proposed 'sensible' changes would 'restore confidence' in the immigration system and 'ensure that the right to work does not automatically mean the right to claim'." The Daily Telegraph has reported that Nick Clegg has asserted that "anyone who believes we are better off as an outward facing nation should support these changes. If we don't get to grips with these issues, pro-Europeans surrender the debate to the UKIPs of this world." When the illiberalism of the two main parties is met with such a response from the Liberal Democrats, our purpose in government must inevitably be questioned.

I certainly don't agree with Nick. He talks about "the right to work [being] not an automatic right to claim...we welcome people here who want to...play by the rules", while promoting a change in those rules that will have the effect of preventing the poorest immigrants from being able to find themselves in a position to actively seek work.

The only silver lining on this cloud is that Teresa May was forced to admit, with apparent regret, that "she would not go outside EU law" in extending controls. It turns my stomach to think what she may be capable of without such legal restraints.

Like Stephen Tall and Kelly-Marie Blundell, I want a Liberal Democrat party to make a stand for liberalism, to make the case for immigration and the free movement of people and to uphold basic human rights. Today has been a bad day for a party that has failed to protect both "underdogs" and its fundamental philosophy.

It is too bad that the only positive noises come from the SNP. The white paper, published yesterday, which has been so derided by the parties of Better Together, promotes a more liberal immigration system to the "aggressive approach" of Westminster, with certain restrictions being relaxed and the introduction of "a point-based system for immigration based on skills would be introduced alongside a reduction in the income threshold and minimum salary levels required for immigrants." The SNP is clearly committed to easing immigration, while Westminster steadily moves in the opposite direction - no doubt motivated, in part at least, by the threat of Nigel Farage's UKIP.

Sometimes some things are more important than politics. When liberals at Westminster fail to oppose illiberal proposals - and go as far as to label them "sensible" - it's enough to make you vote "yes" for Scottish independence.

3 comments:

Francesca E S Montemaggi said...

I'm considering moving to Scotland and voting for independence :-)

tris said...

On the same day, Andrew, I believe that the EU referendum bill passed a hurdle in the Commons.

Doubtless, the massive English anti-EU/pro UKIP vote will carry this, and unless we are an independent state we will be dragged from the EU almost vertainly against our will.

Without the legal constraints of the multi faulted, but still better than Westminster, EU law, Mrs May will be then be free to lead the "nasty" party towards being the "truly evil" party.

Robert said...

I would like to vote For Scotland independence, but maybe just maybe it would be better as it now.Indeoendence is a good way for Scotland, only if independece mean real independence , but not within EU.