Stamping on human rights and stirring up hatred - is this the UK political centre-ground?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 10 October 2016 in Editor's note

Labour has been accused of taking the party back to the 1970s but Theresa May seems to want to drag us back centuries

Branding immigrants as a card to be played, naming and shaming employers that give foreigners work, stamping all over human rights, turning our backs on Europe, shrinking our horizons, stirring up hatred and playing to the xenophobes.

This, according to Theresa May, is now the political centre ground.

In a populist speech to her party conference, she spoke to disillusioned voters on both the left and the right who she said had been left behind. And she used the Brexit vote to legitimise all that she had to say on a tougher line on immigration, business, justice and leaving Europe.


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The Brexit vote was a message from people who “were not prepared to be ignored any more”, said May. “Because in June people voted for change. And a change is going to come.”

She told her party conference that she had come into politics to “stand up for the weak and stand up to the strong” and she argued that the party had fled from the centre of British politics but was now “the party of the workers, the party of public servants, the party of the NHS”. The party of change.

She said there had been a quiet revolution whose roots ran deep but surfaced on 23 June when the voices of the politically disaffected and disillusioned were heard and they said, ‘Leave’.

It felt like the Prime Minister, who has been a Conservative MP for 20 years, the Conservative Party’s only woman chair and Britain’s longest serving Home Secretary, had had had nothing to do with shaping the past lives of UK voters and everything to do with their future.

She thanked her predecessor, David Cameron, for modernising the Conservative Party but then drew a line under his premiership by saying, “Now we need to change.” And if change did not happen, she said, resentment would grow and divisions would come.

And just as most reasonable people found themselves shaking their heads in disbelief, she insisted there would be “no opt-out from Brexit” and that she would “never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”

She said it was for the UK Government alone to carry out the negotiations and made it clear there would be no special deals for Scotland.

“The job of negotiating our new relationship is the job of the Government. Because we voted in the referendum as one United Kingdom, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom.”

The Prime Minister, it appeared, had swallowed a hard-Brexit pill.

And her comments, sparked fury amongst nationalists. Sturgeon herself tweeted: “PM is going out of her way to say Scotland’s voice and interest don’t matter. Strange approach from someone who wants to keep UK together.”

It was a thinly veiled threat but one potentially with some substance. It gently warned May that if she wants to fuel support for independence, then she should keep going with the hard-line rhetoric.

And in that, the Tory conference did not disappoint.

Speaker after speaker fuelled outrage from the left. And it was chilling. An LBC radio presenter read on air what he said was Amber Rudd’s speech about naming and shaming employers who had foreign workers. And when he revealed he was actually reading from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, no one was surprised.

Labour may now stand accused of taking the party back to the 1970s but Theresa May seems to want to drag us back centuries and Brexit is the vehicle to drive us there.

For a woman that apparently campaigned for Remain, she has had a remarkable volte-face and as she left the conference stage to the sounds of ELO and Mr Blue Sky, one couldn’t help but look skywards and wonder, was she now simply sitting in UKIP territory.

Scotland has never felt so different.

And Ruth Davidson, to her credit, has recognised that. She may have become the darling of the UK Tories with her impassioned case for Remain and for the Union but it’s difficult riding two horses at the same time.

She has tried to distance herself from the tirade of xenophobic bile heard at conference by mirroring the First Minister’s sentiments about immigrants who have made Scotland their home but there is no getting away from which party she belongs to and that will come back to haunt her as we inch towards Brexit.

At the Conservative Party conference last week, the new Prime Minister spoke with the righteousness of the newly converted. Brexit will mean Brexit and if there was any doubt before about what that would mean, it will be hard, hard, hard.

Something has to change, says May repeatedly and we now understand that when she says “Brexit means Brexit”, she actually means ‘let’s close our borders, close our minds and take the United Kingdom to the right’.

This is the new Tory party. The party that brought us Brexit and the one that Theresa May says will bring a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change.

There may have been, up until now, little appetite for a second independence referendum but this week at the SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon will hope that Theresa May’s vision of a post-Brexit Britain may offer an opportunity for that to change.

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