To be clear: the policy proposal that inflamed this reaction was illiberal, divisive and for many of us just plain wrong. But to draw comparisons between your political opponents and Nazi’s is at best immature and at worst downright irresponsible. Remember we’re not talking here about a hastily written and swiftly retracted tweet – it was a considered article in a national newspaper (of sorts).
Let’s get the facts straight first. Did the Tories really go so far as to suggest that businesses must list all foreign workers, or did Ms Black (and many other commentators1) react to a headline without checking the facts?
If you dig a little deeper (as I have done on this blog here) you’ll find that the policy didn’t feature in Amber Rudd’s speech or in any official press releases. It was instead “briefed” to a couple of newspapers. Those papers said the proposal might go as far as asking businesses to publish the proportion of their workforce that was “international”. It looks like a Times headline writer turned that into “Firms Must List Foreign Workers” and unleashed the outrage of shallow-thinking headline-skaters like Ms Black.
The policy proposal is still a terrible idea of course. The clear intention – implied but carefully never voiced by a quotable source – is that companies who employ “too many” foreign workers should be “shamed”. By briefing some journalists about this policy idea, the Tories cynically threw out a piece of raw meat to keep the xenophobes in their party happy. That they tied a rope to it so they could haul it back in (as they now appear to be doing) doesn’t make their actions any less contemptible.
Soon after this story broke, it was sobering to see a YouGov poll showed that 59% of the UK and 50% of Scots actually support the proposal that companies should “report how many foreign workers they employ”.
Rather than adopting Ms Black’s stance of branding half her country-folk as Nazis (and 46% of SNP voters, if the poll is to be believed), we might expect a mature, credible politician to instead have calmly explained why these people should maybe think again.
First of all we should be clear that HMRC already knows about all legally employed foreign workers through their PAYE records, so this isn’t a question about government information, it’s about making employers publicly share that data.
The underlying reasoning seems to be a misguided concern that companies might be favouring hiring “foreigners” over British nationals, but this frankly doesn’t pass a basic common-sense test.
Employers can’t pay foreign nationals less for the same job because it’s illegal to discriminate between workers based on nationality (as it is for race, religion or gender). Immigrants will often have a language barrier to cope with and Non-EU nationals have to pass strict work visa requirements to be lawfully employed here (something which may of course soon stretch to EU nationals as well).
As an employer it’s clearly prudent to hire somebody who faces no uncertainty over their right to remain in the UK - the deck is already stacked very much in favour of the British worker.
Some argue that immigration may be holding down wage levels, but that argument is weakened by the existence of a fast rising National Minimum Wage (we should refuse to adopt the false “Living Wage” branding this government applies to it). But even if you believe this is an issue, it’s one for government to deal with head-on, not via some back-door naming and shaming exercise of employers who are simply hiring the best people for the job at the rate the market determines.
It is to the SNP’s credit that they don’t pander to xenophobes and instead make a clear and welcoming statement to all EU citizens (unless you’re English and want to study here of course, in which case you have to pay).
But you don’t need to believe the SNP share the same racist tendencies as the worst of the English nationalists to argue that something links them. That "something" is a wish to narrow the definition of us, a desire to identify and point the finger of blame at them. The bogeymen may be different, but both strains of nationalism require that they exist to sustain their angry support.
Before grand-standing from what they see as their moral high-ground, the SNP should maybe consider that their continued grievance mongering towards the rest of the UK and "Westminster" is mirrored by those blaming the EU and “foreign workers” for all their ills.
This context might explain Mhairi Black’s poorly chosen and intemperate language. After all, nobody likes to be spooked by their own reflection.
1. Most notably James O'Brien who compared Amber Rudd's speech to an extract from Mein Kampf. I'm generally a fan of O'Brien's, but in this case I think he was guilty of some frankly pretty dodgy "straw-manning". I would suggest to justify an accusation of something as heinous as this he at least needed to be able to quote some actual lines from Rudd's speech. In O'Brien's defence, he's a professional agent provocateur, not an elected member of parliament. And I'm pretty sure he's not a nationalist.