Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Nationalist Reflections

Following last week’s Conservative Party conference, SNP MP Mhairi Black used her column in the National to suggest that "I am not exaggerating when I say that the policies being brought forward are reminiscent of early 1930s Nazi Germany." She went on to explain that this was because the Tories were "even going as far as to say that businesses must list all foreign workers".

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.


Peter Russell said...

As I wrote on Facebook:

'Black's article is hyperbolic crap. In Nazi Germany, she would have been shot; any public outcry against the proposals would have been met with extreme violence on the streets and by leading opponents being put in the first wave of concentration camps (for political opponents). There would have been no legislative process, and the requirement to register foreign employees would have been introduced dictatorial fiat. Perhaps an arson attack would have been mounted on Holyrood, and nationalists and Labour accused of doing it. Holyrood would then have been suspended for reasons of "public safety" and all opposition political parties repressed and their leaders murdered. Instead, what has happened is that a half-arsed but deeply repugnant idea has been squashed on the drawing board by enlightened public opinion in a democracy. Denis Healey warned: "Don't call Thatcher a fascist - when a real one comes along, you won't know the difference." The same applies today.'

J. R. Tomlin said...

The UK hasn't taken to actually shooting people who disagree with the government yet so all disagreement and criticism is invalid. Now THERE is a great argument.

Dom said...

I don't see why it's inconceivable that this policy is related to identifying skills shortages so the government can better shape the education system and the immigration system when control of borders are returned. And that is the rationale that has been put forward by the government. Just because the government are Tories doesn't mean they're inherently evil! That doesn't stop the left wing press trying to turn this into a "Tories are racist" story which is all that's happened as far as I can see.

Drew said...

'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.'

All throughout the 1980s Scottish Labour led a pretty strong and at times hostile opposition to the UK Government led by Thatcher. Many Labour politicians here lined up to denounce her Government's polcies as alien to Scotland. Such was the driving force to instill this belief that Scotland was somehow different from England, the campaign to set up the Scottish Parliament was revived after the narrow defeat in 1979.

What's the different between Scottish Labour's demonising of the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s and insisting the Conservative Government in Westminister was hostile to Scotland under Thatcher and the SNP doing it now?

kailyard rules said...
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kailyard rules said...
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Johnny 99 said...

Excellent article - as a Scot living in England I have found that Mhairi Black's observations Mark her out as a political lightweight, unable to defend any position beyond the initial challenge - I guess this is the result of the rapid rise of SNP and all the grievance loaded new MP's who all just parrot "the line"

Keep up the good work

kailyard rules said...

" draw comparisons between your political opponents and Nazi's is...downright irresponsible"

The SNP are continually traduced and maligned as being Natzi's. Good to read that you see this complete mendacity aimed at the SNP for the spurious bile it is. Although "irresponsible" is way too lenient a rebuke.

However, the expressed desires, the contemplations mooted, at the Tory Conference regarding lists (employers) and stratafication of people (doctors etc.) did have the stink of Herr Goebels.

Kevin Hague said...


The government already have the data per PAYE/NI records - the proposal was specifically related to employers having to publish the data, the implied reason being to "name and shame", that's what the reaction is to

Kevin Hague said...


I agree that Scottish Labour were guilty of demonising Tories - I'm not aware of anything as overt as an elected MP writing a column calling them Nazis, but if that happened it too would have been very wrong

Kevin Hague said...


You'll have to choose between the moral high-ground and the gutter - you'll tire yourself out if you keep jumping between the two

Drew said...

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of accusing people of being Nazis and the semantics of whether you call it nationalism or not, the problem for Labour and Lib Dems is devolution opened a door that is very difficult to close again.

As Donald Dewar famously said devolution is a process not an event. You can't give people and organisations a degree of self-autonomy, greater responsbilty and control then call them names when they want a bit more.

kailyard rules said...

Kevin, regarding the high ground and the gutter, on this topic the singular perspective is remarkably similar from each elevation,and the exercise is a bonus.

Ferdinand said...

Is not comparing English to Nazis just bread and butter hate politics for a certain strand of the SNP?

I think the last one I noticed was George Kerevan using a Beer Hall analogy when talking about UKIP in the national. It has been going for decades. I see it as the SNP need to maintain their self-justifying fake victim narrative.

Comparing much of the Scottish population to Nazis by implication is not one I have seen before and goes beyond the previous 'people in Scotland who do not vote for the SNP are anti-Scottish'.

On the counting foreign employees thing, I think they do that in the USA already as part of the Green Card etc procedures. And do you. Not have to police identity documents, Kevin, as part of immigration monitoring? AS a small LL I have to do that for tenants and it is an offence if I do not.

Ferdinand said...

Aha I see you made the point about the USA in your previous

Do you know whether employees have to report publicly over there on employees by USA / not USA?

Drew said...

'That "something" is a wish to narrow the definition of us, a desire to identify and point the finger of blame at them.'

I'd also like to know on where on this sliding scale to nationalism begins and ends, where devolution goes too far in your eyes? Having power over health, education, justice and transport is fine and morally just, but extending those powers over immigration, defence and foreign affairs becomes divisive nationalism?

As the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and Gibraltar are not part of the UK political because they don't send MPs to the House of Commons, does that make them guilty of a kind of nationalism?

Canada only became a full sovereign country in 1982 when the Canada Act abolished the need for the UK Parliament to make amendments to the Constitution.

Would you regard Canada as guilty of nationalism and creating a 'them and 'us' at that point?

Or was it when it gained Dominion status in the 1930s?

Or does the fact that it is part of the Commonwealth and retains the Queen as Head of State make it not nationalistic?

David GREEN said...

An excellent piece of forensic analysis, in which we can see a powerful meme being established quite quickly out of something smaller. It is not the only meme that has gained traction. One of the others is that Brexit was all about EU immigration. To read Daniel Hannan in the FT, Brexit was all about regaining sovereignty. Apparently, he tells us, that is also what Fox and Davis think. For those unfamiliar with the name, Hannan is a Peruvian with a UK passport obtained by right of descent from UK nationals, who is also a Conservative MEP. He is regarded by many, across the political spectrum, as providing the intellectual underpinning for Brexit. So we already have two, powerful, if slightly misplaced memes taking a strong hold.

You are also right to hold up Mhairi Black as a shallow-thinking, surface skater. She needs to be careful about history and its uses and abuses, as does everyone. If I were to be mischievous, I would point out that she is indisputably a Nationalist. Her position on the merits or otherwise of state ownership of capital is unclear, but she is reported as saying that the Labour Part y left her, not she the Labour Party. Does that make her a socialist? Probably, in a soft sense. Does that make her a National Socialist? On simple definitional grounds, she might be thought to show some overlap, as does Sturgeon. A clear desire to distinguish 'us' from 'them'. A lot of ranting rhetoric about the the evils of outsiders, in this case the Tories. A wall of lies about grievances, and a complete silence on the costs of independence for Scotland. The aim? To create a sense of hysteria that sees Scottish independence as the only solution to difficult and trying circumstances.

The irony is that much of the Brexit playbook was taken straight from the SNP. Taking back control for a stronger UK/Scotland (take your pick). Sovereignty squashed under the yoke of the EU/Westminster (again, take your pick). A complete denial of the economic consequences, at least in the short-to-medium term, of the leave policy. And complete denial of serious budget deficits in both political entities that portend serious austerity. And still Swinney is talking about attaching the independent Scottish currency to Sterling. He must think that a floating Scottish groat would do even worse than an 18% fall against the US dollar.

Fortunately, half of the Scottish electorate appears to be holding out against the hysteria and bile of Sturgeon and her brigade of ranters. Long live the Scottish Enlightenment.

dustybloke said...

Unfortunately for her argument, the party that has a policy most resembling the German National Socialist party is her own.

Admittedly, the SNP leaders don't shoot members of the party who disagree with them, but the rules are the same, except the Nazis didn't put it in writing.

Dom said...

Kevin, just noticed your reply that the government already knows this data.

While someone somewhere in government at sometime could probably work it out, it's much easier to get the companies to clarify the proportion of non-UK labour themselves. The proposal for them to do this remains in the whitepaper.

The main thing that annoyed me about the whole affair is the "lists of foreign workers" headline, which seems to be made up to frighten people and cast the Conservatives in an unpleasant light. I have a lot of Euro friends that felt pretty frightened by this echo of the past. To find that it was all made up (having watched Amber Rudd's speech and found no mention) made me quite annoyed. It scares my friends, and it casts the UK in a very unpleasant light...

Wildgoose said...

Just responding to yet another lazy anti-English smear - English Nationalism isn't racist, we leave that to the British Nationalists along with the various other strands of nationalism in the UK who tend to define themselves more by not being English and not wanting to having anything to do with us than with anything else.

Please break up the UK and let us English decide how we are to govern ourselves without the constant anti-English whining from the "Celtic" fringe, (including from both the Nationalists and non-Nationalists as this post shows).

Andrew Veitch said...

I think it's fair to say that The National is not read widely around the world so some comments by a young girl are probably not going to have much impact.

More seriously are the articles appearing globally in serious newspapers of record such as The New York Times "Upset by Brexit, Some British Jews Look to Germany" or La Repubblica joking that Britain will be "introducing racial laws next" or the Süddeutsche Zeitung comparing the Conservative Party to the French National Front. There's many more I could have quoted including one about Liam Fox's threats of mass deportation which I read somewhere but I couldn't find just now.

One Conservative Conference has undone decades of work by our inward investment agencies.

soccer doc said...

As you have chosen to return to this with your link to Kuensberg's report of extra/higher charges for non-EU migrants, or migrants who use the NHS (btw, post Brexit that will include EU citizens - bearing in mind the focus that has been put on preserving their rights post-Brexit, that will go down well with the EU!), lets look at it.
First you criticise Mhairi Black for not having "calmly explained why these people should maybe think again" - these people being the 59% in the UK and 50% in Scotland who support companies having to report how many migrants they employ. But bearing in mind the tone and content of many of the speeches made by Tory politicians since Brexit - and an "honourable" mention to Amber Rudd and Theresa May here - amplified by various rags masquerading as newspapers, it is perhaps surprising and disappointing to said rags that these figures are not higher. The problem when we are dealing with racism Kev is that one of the earliest victims is calm debate.
Secondly, having praised the SNP for not pandering to xenophobes, rather like David Torrance you still cant resist trying to put the boot in - "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.". But you see Scottish Nationalism being based on civic nationalism (I will come back to this btw) has no "them". The argument is that Scotland could do better than it does within the UK. I am surprised you dont know this as you have expended a good deal of time in criticism of that thesis.
Lastly, if you want to draw attention to this article - now a bit more than a year old - you might do well to give it some editing, particularly this bit bearing in mind Ruth Davidson's recently well publicised speech - "to draw comparisons between your political opponents and Nazi’s is at best immature and at worst downright irresponsible"? You of course, in the section I discuss in the above paragraph, are doing the same thing - labelling Scottish nationalism as "ethnic" when it is "civic" as even cursory reading of Ignatieff's Civic and Ethnic Nationalism would show you. The conceptual crudity of not making that distinction is not something that does you - or Ms Davidson - any credit whatsoever. Nor indeed does your failure to apply just the same criticism to the entire Brexit vote, given the degree of emphasis on the blame to be applied to the EU ("them")