I find it a tad ironic that the current Prime Minister is being hounded from office as much by the unrestrained xenophobia of the extremists in her party, as they chase some kind of British purity, as by her own incompetence. I find it ironic because she herself was the author of part of the infrastructure of the institutionalised racism that underpins UK immigration policy.
I know that that is not a recent development. The shadow of empire is long and dark and pretty well documented. Those who watched the BBC programme on the Windrush on Monday night will have found themselves under no illusions about the racist threads that ran through government then, just as they do today. Enoch Powell was not a maverick shooting his mouth off; he was part of the mainstream, happy to strip other nations of skilled workers such as nurses when it suited, and equally happy to tell them to go home again when it looked as though there was political capital in it.
How things have changed, and have never changed. As has already been said, the Prime Minister’s previous incarnation as Home Secretary was the time when that hostile environment was ramped up and the gimlet eye of suspicion fell on everyone: an immigrant, someone who might consider giving a job to an immigrant, a landlord who might consider offering a home to an immigrant family, a truck driver just crossing the channel, a charity offering support to asylum seekers, and anyone who might have come into contact with an immigrant or might consider coming into contact with such a person.
I thought that Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” was bad, but the then Home Secretary obviously thought that she could go one better. Labour’s anti-immigration mugs were topped by the Tories “go home” vans. It is a disgraceful and disgusting trail of mistrust and racism that led from Churchill and Powell through Blair and Brown to this shabby lot who are disgracing the concept of government. It stretches further back in time, of course, and Brexit is just one facet of it—this horrid and brutish British exceptionalism. But it is not only cocking a snook to the world; it is damaging to the people and economies of these islands. We are already seeing the effects of a Brexit whose full horror is still lurking around the corner and might be made worse by whatever ridiculous choice is being made for the next Prime Minister.
However, the effects of that ignorant and unthinking xenophobia bite deeper even than Brexit. We all have a roll-call of constituents unfairly treated by this Government and their policies. I have raised several, including people who have lived in the UK for decades but are now threatened. People who raised families while one of them worked are now being told that the stay-at-home parent has no right to stay. From the wife of a bodyguard to the Queen to the owners of a business employing over a dozen people, from the young couples hoping to get married and build a life to the folk who came as children when their parents answered a call for workers—all these in my constituency and many others are being threatened with the big stick of deportation.
I have already mentioned in previous debates and discussions the negative effects that the refusal of visitors for performance is having on Edinburgh’s festivals. I know other cultural events up and down the UK are having similar problems, but my concern is with Edinburgh. Examples include illustrators of children’s books being refused visas to speak at our book festival on the grounds that they might not go home to their families, homes and occupations afterwards; orchestras having to fight to bring their musicians; and actors who have travelled half the world being suspected of intending to settle in the UK. It is nonsense. It is also incredibly damaging to the reputation of Edinburgh’s festivals and to Scotland’s name. It suggests that our nation is not a welcoming nation and is not a place that is open for business.
And if the performers cannot get here, how many more visas are being refused to international travellers who would want to take in the festivals and explore a bit more of the country, spending money as they go? How much damage is being done to our tourism industry? Perhaps the Minister, if she is able to respond later, could give us some indications around those questions.
Along with the damage to the tourist industry of course goes damage to our food and drink exports. The reputation of the country as a whole is vital in selling our products in the global marketplace. It also matters for important sectors such as finance and the gaming industry, not least because their customers and colleagues move constantly across international borders. The more we drive people away on the basis of some spurious arguments, the more we will damage ourselves. We need international trade. We need international movement. We need our good international reputation.
There is another sector that gets really affected by travel difficulties: conferences. The contribution to Edinburgh’s economy—and I imagine that of many other cities, including Glasgow—from hosting conferences is substantial. There is the money spent on the conferences themselves and the support for them, but there is also the money spent by delegates in the city’s hotels, shops, restaurants and so on. We are talking about millions of pounds and thousands of jobs, but Alison Phipps, UNESCO chair in refugee integration, has said that she will stop hosting international conferences in the UK because of the Home Office’s “inept,” “embarrassing” and “discriminatory” visitor visa system which represents an effective travel ban for many academics.
An event in March, co-sponsored by the International Development Committee of this House, had most of its visas refused. We have universities that cannot get academics into the country, whose international students are being turned away and which are losing opportunities for international co-operation.
Far from being a world power, the UK is turning into a small and irrelevant backwater that will be shunned on the international stage because it refuses to be on the international stage. This damaging xenophobic attitude to immigration is not just a Brexit sideshow; it is a long-standing piece of arrogance and stupidity practised by successive UK Governments. It is an insult to people and businesses that try to operate internationally and is a sad little pastiche of a misremembered history being played out again and again as a farce by UK politicians who have no better idea.