Brexit and British nationalism - Theresa May's metamorphosis

Written by Tom Freeman on 10 October 2016 in Inside Politics

Theresa May has shown her hand - and transformed from a reserved remainer into a bold Brexiteer

Theresa May - PA

“There is no opt-out from Brexit,” warned Prime Minister Theresa May as she opened the Conservative conference in Birmingham, “and I will never allow divisive nationalists to undermine the precious Union between the four nations of our United Kingdom.”

The message was clearly aimed at the SNP’s aspirations to forge a uniquely Scottish relationship with Europe. But for all her tough words on taking on the nationalists, the rhetoric which emerged from the conference was as nationalist as it comes.  

Disparaging those who see themsleves as a “citizen of the world”, May said that “it took that typically British resolve for people to vote the way they did” in the EU referendum.


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There was also an open attack on liberalism. “Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public,” she said. “They find their patriotism distasteful, their concerns about immigration parochial, their views about crime illiberal, their attachment to their job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million people voted to leave the European Union simply bewildering.”

In a tub-thumping speech about what makes Britain great, May was tackling the Conservative Party’s big dividing line, Europe, which has caused internal strife for decades. 

“Brexit means Brexit,” she had been fond of saying during the summer, which saw her rise from a bit part in the Remain campaign to the top of British politics. What that Brexit will look like, however, she had been rather more coy about.

And after a summer of silence on the UK’s position in Europe in the aftermath of the referendum result, many expected the Conservative conference in Birmingham to focus on economic policy and crowing about the relative chaos apparent in the party’s greatest rivals, Labour.

It did not play out that way. The Prime Minister not only set a timetable for Brexit – the Article 50 mechanism will be triggered by March, leaving two years to exit the EU – she gave her toughest line yet on what that new relationship would look like.

“Let me be clear. We are not leaving the EU only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.”

The position laid out in her speech was, commentators agreed, comprehensively ‘hard Brexit’.

“That means we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration,” she said. 

And her ministers did not hesitate in starting to outline what that control on immigration would look like. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said:“We have to look at all sources of immigration if we mean business. It’s only by reducing the numbers back down to sustainable levels that we can change the tide of public opinion, so once again, immigration is something we can all welcome.”

This would include more restrictions on international students and their families and taking a harder line on illegal immigration, Rudd said, boosted by a £140m ‘Controlling Migration Fund’ to ease the pressures on communities.

In contrast to the pre-referendum debate about unskilled economic migrants, now all immigrants were apparently undesirable. UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his government planned to phase out the NHS’s reliance on doctors from abroad.

“We want to see more British doctors in the NHS,” said May. 

As part of new rules designed to make it harder to give jobs to immigrants, employers may be forced to disclose how many foreign nationals they employ. 

The next day’s newspaper headlines splashed: ‘British jobs for British workers’. 

Business and university leaders balked. Adam Marshall, Acting Director-General of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “It would be a sad day if having a global workforce was seen as a badge of shame.

"It does not tell you anything about what the company is doing to train up their UK workforce or the effort and lengths they have made to recruit in the UK before turning overseas.” 

The CBI said business would not welcome “further restrictions” on skilled migration. Josh Hardie, deputy director general, policy and campaigns, said: “At a time when we need strong links globally to seize new opportunities after the referendum, being seen as open to the best and brightest is vital.

“And we should be clear that business does not see immigration and training as an either/or choice. We need both.”

Of course the price of such a hard line on immigration and abandonment of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is the UK losing access to the single market, as outlined repeatedly in no uncertain terms by European leaders.  

Sterling fell to a 31-year low against the dollar. The International Monetary Fund cut its forecast for the UK economy. 

Tory activists greeted May’s new hardline stance with boisterous cheers, but at the fringe meetings in Birmingham’s conference centre there were rumblings of discontent among the more pro-Europe Conservatives.

Hours after Rudd’s speech, former business minister Anna Soubry issued a passionate rebuttal at a Bright Blue fringe event. Suggestions of restrictions on students was, she said, “the stuff of complete nonsense”.

“We’ve now gone from one extreme where people couldn’t have a debate about immigration for fear of being called racist… to the other extreme where people like me want to make a positive case and actually take it on, and you say, ‘oh, you’re patronising poor people’,” she said.

Next, might suggestions of compromise on immigration or the single market face accusations of talking Britain down?

One vocal critic of ‘hard Brexit’ has been Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who, despite being again chosen as the popular warm-up act for the Prime Minister at conference, finds herself in a difficult strategic position.

For while the trappings of British nationalism served her well in placing herself as the voice of unionists in Scotland ahead of the Holyrood election, her pitch to be a voice for unionist Scotland at a UK level is rooted in her strong appearances as a passionate campaigner in the push for a Remain vote.

Britain must remain outward-looking, she pleaded in her speech to conference.  

“As we have difficult – but necessary – debates on how we manage borders in future, let us not forget that behind discussions of numbers and rules and criteria, there lies people and homes and families.

“And for those who have already chosen to build a life, open a business, make a contribution, I say this is your home, and you are welcome here.”

But for Davidson, concerns about the aftermath of Brexit fade in comparison to concerns about Scottish independence.

“You all know where I stood in the referendum in June,” she said. “But I tell you this: I did not vote Remain to see my vote co-opted into a fresh SNP independence drive.”

While the complaints of Conservative remainers have been muted, May remained resolute, and a poll for ConservativeHome revealed the party was swinging behind her tougher stance on Europe, with 76 per cent support for a ‘harder’ EU exit strategy.

But behind the Brexit battles, May’s pitch also revealed a new direction for Conservatism. 

Immigration, it seems, is not the only area where the party has become more comfortable with state intervention. 

The new political 'centre ground', as defined by the Conservative leader, is one where “government steps up – and not back – to act on behalf of the people”. 

This means government intervening directly in the markets, as well as on borders. Not perhaps what free-market libertarian Brexiteers were hoping for their post-Europe utopia. The most Thatcherite among delegates may have raised eyebrows at the appointment of former Labour adviser Matthew Taylor to review employment law.

In fact, in terms of the role of the state in people’s lives, there was perhaps a common theme which had continued from the previous week’s Labour conference, which saw Jeremy Corbyn winning a stronger mandate to move the party to the left. 

Displaying uncharacteristic venom, he warned the mutineers in his party to “end the trench warfare and work together to take on the Tories”. Some of those on the right of the party urged him to follow the Conservatives in talking tough on immigration.

But some of his other policy ideas, such as borrowing for investment and a migrant fund for communities, reappeared a week later in Birmingham dressed in Conservative blue. 

“We know how great this country could be, for all its people, with a new political and economic settlement,” Corbyn said in his keynote speech. The colour of the lectern might have been red, but the words could as easily have been May’s.  

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