Firstly it’s important to recognise that Rudd’s conference speech isn’t a policy yet. It may never become one. It’s a politician making a statement, and we should treat it no more or less seriously than Donald Trump telling America that he’s going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. It has no policy bearing as yet and frankly, I can’t see how they could make it work. Stigmatising companies for employing immigrants seems very strange and unworkable.
But it is a powerful symbolic gesture. During the Referendum our political elite realised that immigration is absolutely the issue of the moment and you can win a lot of support by using it to make yourself look tough. The interesting thing is that no-one is even talking about making employing EU migrants illegal. What Rudd raised was the idea of making it seem morally suspect, the wrong thing to do.
She’s talking about creating social pressure, but that only has bearing on companies or brands that interact with the public a lot. Even if there were some weird rating system – a mark from one to five for employing British people, like the hygiene sticker in a restaurant window – that only works with Starbucks or Sainsbury’s or the companies that we deal with every day. The businesses that actually employ a lot of EU migrants are in the Three C’s: caring, cleaning and catering. They don’t have a public face. Often they’re subcontractors to large companies. How are you going to shame them?
What stands out is that this idea isn’t very Conservative at all. It flies in the face Thatcherite meritocracy, that people should be able to get on by their own efforts whomever they are. Rudd’s idea would give you advantages based on who you are, not what you can do, which is entirely opposed to everything the Conservative Party has advocated for forty years.
For instance, the NHS is Britain’s biggest employer. If a hospital is recruiting a paediatrician and the German applicant is better than the British one, are they supposed to choose the less able candidate just because they are British?
It would also be enormously bureaucratic, which is not very Conservative either. The Australian points-based immigration system, which Ukip advocated copying in an idea that has now fallen by the wayside, requires enormous administration. The agency that oversees Canada’s Skilled Immigrant Visa (Citizenship and Immigration Canada) employs 7,000 people and it takes three months to process an application. Business just doesn’t work like that. Are we going to have quotas and work permits? Would companies be expected to keep a tally of their non-EU employees? And which Conservative government would green-light such an expansion of bureaucracy? It’s all very statist.
What Rudd said wasn’t about ideology but popularity. You can see across Europe how very many parties are using immigration as the popular topic to mobilise support, and Amber Rudd is doing the same. Yet the interesting thing is that only in Britain to do people make a distinction between EU and non-EU migration. To the countries of continental Europe, EU workers are not considered part of the migration debate. In France or Germany, they’re just workers.
Britain, on the other hand, is very much concerned with Eastern European migrant labour. It’s partly, I think, down to geography and Britons’ lasting suspicion of foreigners. But when Eastern Europe opened up to free movement in 2004, only Britain and Ireland allowed full, instant immigration. Germany and the Netherlands had something like a ten-year buffer zone.
So in some respects Britain bore the brunt of EU expansion. A great many, often rural areas which had never seen significant immigration – and in fact often suffered from declining populations – suddenly had a great influx of Eastern European migrants. By the way, it’s funny that whenever anyone, even Ukip, is talking about limiting EU migration, Irish people are somehow exempt. Even the most anti-immigration politicians will say, “Yes, but of course the Irish can still come…”
It’s not a surprise that Rudd’s ideas were subject to an immediate hostile backlash, even from Conservatives. It was perceived as slightly racist, very us vs them and potentially setting a very dangerous precedent. European citizens who have lived in the UK for up to 20 years, and who have contributed to the economy, could have found themselves lumped in with migrants who had been in Britain for a matter of months. I’d be surprised if any of these ideas made it into law.