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May’s speech was aimed at attracting the support of that oddest of tribes – the working class right. Those who simply can’t tell the difference between pragmatism and indifference, dogma and demagoguery. In trying to position the Conservatives as the party of working people she seems to be attempting a feat of political quantum entanglement, simultaneously occupying the vacuums left by an otherwise occupied Labour Party and the slow car crash that is UKIP.
Her speech at conference was pretty much the same thing. Full of claims to be concerned about the oppressed hardworking people of Britain, whilst offering them virtually no policies to deal with their plight. It’s like she sees her role as someone who merely defines a problem. It’s not for her as a mere Prime Minister to actually do anything constructive about it.
Politics these days is all about territory. Like any other business, the mainstream parties do their consumer research and look for fertile space on the political spectrum, even if that means squatting on someone else’s lawn. Many commentators this week have pointed at Theresa May’s ambition to straddle the middle ground. They may be right, but if that is the case, centrist politics in this country just took a distinct lurch to the right.
In Birmingham this week we saw the Conservatives spread out their picnic blanket on UKIP’s bit of green and unpleasant land. Some of them even slipped over the fence to poke about in that stagnant pond at the end of the EDL’s overgrown garden. Others considered adopting the jackbooted gnomes that the BNP and Britain First had left lying unloved behind their recycling bins, but thought better of it when they spotted the CE logo on their backsides.
With UKIP’s territory now firmly underfoot, Our unelected PM espoused a rhetoric that would have made Thatcher’s bullet-proof hair curl, and led a rallying cry that could be heard down 80 years of dehumanising zeal all the way to the Cable Street riots.
The single thread running through the Tory conference was that foreigners are at the root of all our troubles. Not that any of the arguments put forward made any sense, but, as seems to be the fashion in the May administration, the substance of policy is far less important than how it’s presented.
Jeremy Hunt’s claims that we need more British doctors ignored his policy of turning the NHS into a miserable and soul-shredding career path. Bearing in mind his ulterior project to dismantle the NHS entirely, his motivation in alienating foreigners could be to further undermine the health service in terms of medical staff amidst an ever growing recruitment crisis. Deterring foreign doctors and nurses from working here would play perfectly into that plan when his army of newly trained British doctors ultimately fails to materialise.
Liam Fox talked of foreigners “consuming” our wealth, disregarding the fact that a good deal of that wealth comes from them in the first place. It is fair to say that many foreigners are consuming vast amounts of British assets, property and infrastructure whilst not bothering to live or pay taxes here, but I doubt those were the people he was referring to.
Amber Rudd’s bizarre proposal that companies should declare how many foreign workers they have, as if this were some badge of shame, was bad enough in itself. The fact that we have no explanation from her as to how such disclosure would have any material benefit to the economy leaves the motivation behind such a suggestion hovering in the air like a curried fart that no one wants to own up to. Perhaps she thinks consumers will boycott companies using too much dirty foreign labour. Although judging by our appetite for cheap foreign goods, picked and delivered by cheap foreign labour, I think we’d pretty soon find the fact that we can no longer afford our faux Hollywood lifestyles pretty indigestible.
This empty proselytising ultimately led to the default position of every other dead-end, morally bankrupt regime down the years, that of blaming the ‘others’, the foreigners, anyone who wasn’t one of us.
At this point it becomes difficult to avoid Godwin’s Law, and for very good reasons. Successive regimes have used the same technique to gain popular support in the past. Not just the Nazis, it’s been used many times before and since WW2. It was used during the Balkan wars, it’s been used in the middle East. It was used in Rwanda and it’s been the main plank of Donald Trump’s campaign since he poked an orange finger in the air. It’s been used to good effect by UKIP, and the referendum vote was mostly driven by it.
The sad and enduring fact is that these rallying tugs on the nationalist heartstrings still work. Little wonder then that May and her government, desperately thrashing around for relevance and traction, whilst knowing they have no real mandate, pushed the xenophobia button.
May’s own position on nationalism seems as muddled as the rest of her grandiloquence. Her cry that she wanted a country where it didn’t matter where you were born, flew in the face of Amber Rudd’s negative focus on foreign workers. But her most chilling claim was that “to be a citizen of the world was to be a citizen of nowhere”. This had faint echoes of words of her predecessor’s oft misquoted assertion that there’s no such thing as society, calling as it did on the same rubbishing of anyone who claims common allegiance outside an identity defined by place of birth, job, education or cultural experience.
And this I believe is at the heart of the new nationalism we see sweeping across the globe. In a world becoming more connected and co-operative, the old guard political dinosaurs are seeing their claws slipping out of the flesh they’ve held on to for so long.
It’s now easy to share views and experiences with other people and cultures across arbitrary lines drawn on a map. Controlling populations on a global scale is so much more difficult than it is within national boundaries, so when cultural enlightenment reaches a critical mass, it’s essential to reign it back in with some good old fashioned separatism. To promote the idea that just because you share the same bit of ground with someone, they will be honour bound to look after your interests, even if that is self evidently not the case. So many societies throughout history have reached this point and been destroyed by exactly that kind of nationalistic fervour.
If we’re going to grow as a species, the easy acceptance of national pride is something we all have to see beyond. Yes we can celebrate our own cultural identities and the differences that make those experiences interesting and enriching, but your place of birth is not a badge of honour. Where you fell out of your mother’s womb is not an achievement. Neither is where she did the same or any of the generations before her.
Once you dispel the idea that we are more deserving of the advantages of the minerals beneath our feet, the climate we enjoy, economic position or any other of the random strokes of luck or misfortune that befall us by virtue of our place of birth, you lose the moral high ground of entitlement. Then denying others those things just because they were born on the other side of a line starts to look like exactly what it is – selfishness and protectionism.
Theresa May is just the latest in a long line of rulers who have used the argument of national entitlement to control and quieten a population, giving cover to those who are the real architects of their impoverishment. Sadly, she probably won’t be the last. Unless Donald Trump has other plans for us all of course.