Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008
How to explain Theresa May’s latest plan to crack down on postgraduate students (bloody foreigners, coming over here, paying their fees), if not by appeal to the ancient proverb: those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad?
Has she been drawn into the machinations of capricious and vindictive political gods, straining to undo the error of awarding the Labour leadership to ruthless, hapless Ed, and who have now found in immigration policy the instrument with which to torture the Conservative Party and restore uncertainty to the 2010 election?
As plans to win back voters gone to UKIP, even popular Tory moves on immigration are doomed to evoke the American general in the cold-war comedy The Mouse That Roared. Stumped by an unintentionally successful raid by the forces of a microscopic European duchy, virtually all of whose inhabitants were played by Peter Sellars, America’s top brass convened in Washington.
The Duchy of Grand Fenwick had declared war on the United States in order to lose and receive Marshall aid, but instead captured a new and highly powerful American “Q-Bomb.” It had consequently come to receive offers of protection from American retaliation from rival powers: five divisions each from France and Britain; a further ten from the Soviet Union. The man in the Pentagon proposed to send 25 American divisions to protect the duchy, before the absurdity of the proposition dawned upon him. No potential kipper will be appeased by a Conservative in office claiming their own immigration policy is too soft. “You’re the Government: it’s your job to do something, not complain from the sidelines,” they will say – and not without justification.
Foreign students are, furthermore popular immigrants: only a quarter of people want to reduce their numbers. The fees they pay supply almost as much money to universities (around £4 billion per year) as the Higher Education Funding Council. Without foreign students, these would struggle to survive. While the rest of the world is competing to attract the world’s brightest brains, it would seem that May wants us to deter those that we can, and deport the hardy and inventive souls we’re unable to deter. Can it really be that where she once warned that we had become the nasty party, she would now have us embrace John Stuart Mill’s insult and become the stupid one instead?
Her enemies might insinuate that her judgment has been clouded by her leadership ambitions; that this is a plot to win over the Tory grassroots in the next leadership election by being ‘sound’ and Right-wing. Hasn’t she has tamed the Border Agency, deported Abu Qatada, and presided over a decline in crime even as the police budget has been cut? This, surely, has, made her right-wing enough for these purposes: in surveys of this site’s readership, not known for their socialistic tendencies, she does consistently well.
Reason, and her own unguarded remark – that the party’s policy to reduce net immigration to the tens of thousands was not so much a target as a “comment” – suggest a different explanation. It is that May, like every obstreperous underling told to do something idiotic by her boss, has been spurred in irritation to fulfil his instructions to the letter. Angry at having had an impossible immigration target imposed upon her, she is subconsciously taking revenge by floating ever more preposterous and self-defeating ways to meet it.
The old rhetorical technique of reductio ad absurdum, where you prove an argument wrong by taking it to its logical conclusion, has taken over the Home Office. To really reduce net migration, this device recommends, turn Britain into a country that people want to leave.
In 1992, the anti-Labour front page of the Sun read “Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?” This objective is fast becoming Conservative policy. Far better to exempt students from the net migration target, and protect the international reputation of Britain’s universities.