There are few people who have done more work for recent Conservative immigration policy while not actually being in government than Sajid Javid’s father. In fact, he’s doing two jobs at once. The first is to advertise that the Tories are now the party of social mobility: Javid senior was a bus driver. The second is to be invoked constantly as a defence against charges of Conservative racism and Islamophobia – as a Muslim man, born in Pakistan, who migrated to the UK in the 1960s.
Once this brownwashing is complete, Javid senior plays one final role, with a biblical twist – he is to then be denied by his own son. The route that brought him here – paving the way to his son’s spectacular rise through the City and the government – has been blocked. Under new migration policies, Javid senior would not have been allowed in.
The new policies effectively close Britain’s borders to all those classed as unskilled workers and those who cannot speak English at a certain level. When Javid was asked, in 2018, if he was sad about supporting laws that would have barred his own father, he replied that he was “very optimistic about our future because … we will remain the global-outlook nation that welcomes people from across the world.” Just not people like his father. Last week Priti Patel was a little more blunt when she conceded that her parents, Indians from east Africa, would no longer be welcome. “This is the point,” she said. “We are changing our immigration policy to one that’s fit for purpose for our economy, based on skills.”
Skills. The country no longer needs her parents’ skills. The founders and owners of a successful chain of newsagents across London and the south-east, it’s not clear what dire economic need their admission to the UK would have fulfilled at the time. They simply came, did a job well, and bore children who became so well-integrated and influential that they used their power to change the very laws that allowed their own existence in the first place. (Javid and Patel should be grateful that the world doesn’t work like the picture of Marty McFly’s family in Back to the Future, or they would currently be fading from existence, having eliminated the conditions of their own birth.)
But let us get back to skills and points. Their parents were not “skilled” and therefore would not have scored the requisite number of points needed under the new regime to gain entry into the country. But I am sure that neither Javid nor Patel has the desire or temperament to drive a bus or run a newsagents – or to do any of the other jobs they are consigning to the “unskilled” bin with these new rules.
That is the purpose of this new skills apartheid: it creates an arbitrary way of sifting people into “good migrants” and “bad migrants”, so that an overtly punitive regime can become even more cruel. There is no good economic justification for it, only a political one. Alighting on “skills” as the arbiter of who is worth admitting is a clever way to give a neutral technocratic veneer to what is fundamentally ideological.
In this regard, it is consistent with Conservative attitudes toward class, work and race. Under the new immigration rules, there is no use for Javid senior – but his son, who made millions at Deutsche Bank, where he constructed precarious collateralised loan obligations using emerging market government debt, is absolutely welcome.
Before “skills” it was the designation “EU” and “non-EU” that created the two-tier classification of immigrant. And, trust me, my non-EU immigrant experience of the Home Office was not made easier by any skills, education or English language fluency. Now that EU citizens have been downgraded after Brexit, a new caste of immigrants must be demonised to shore up the image of a Britain that has taken back control. But the operating principles remain the same – an immigration system that is not based on economic or humanitarian logic, but on public posturing and pandering. Back when Brexiteers were scaremongering about “open borders”, the Home Office was already deporting the Windrush elderly, and it was already impossible to come to the UK from outside the EU to fill a desperate need for doctors in the NHS without an English exam, a job offer and the payment of an NHS surcharge for the duration of the visa.
But this was not enough. As the rules tighten once again, the policy seems to be moving on to something more sinister, more like a creeping amnesia. Javid and Patel’s disavowal of their parents’ generation is a de facto rewriting of history. It erases the contribution of Britain’s multiracial postwar working class, who came from all corners of the empire to do social care, work in hospitals, staff factories and drive the buses – as if the millions of immigrants who did not speak English and did not have job offers, yet still found a way to launch their offspring into the cabinet, did not exist. They were a blip, an aberration, a servant class of immigrant – to be upgraded, just as Britain after Brexit is refashioned into a nation that takes only the very best. It is a remaking of Britain’s image as a country that no longer needs help from poor immigrants, only adornment from rich ones.
Even the self-interested middle class liberal defence of migration – the one that asks who will pick our fruit and care for our elderly if the drawbridge is raised – doesn’t trouble this government. An immigrant’s entry is no longer justified even by their utility.
In any case, that defence was never a valid one. Those whose presence is no longer required had lives that were not justified by the brute terms of their “contribution”, but by the very DNA of the country as it is today. They simply made, and are part of, Britain. Those who came here to drive buses and run newsagents did not exist in some alternate universe where these occupations required no skills, helped no one and made no imprint. They were not hermetically sealed away from Britain’s culture. They are part of the story, but are now not even dignified with a postscript.
We will come to rue this short memory. The new immigration rules will not only hurt the country economically – they give a glimpse into a new world that is taking shape, one where non-elite jobs are stripped of all honour, virtue and value. Where the government’s disdain for the working class becomes apparent in its contempt for the kind of postcolonial labour that built and rebuilt this country, and its disinterest in the prospects of the “indigenous” workers who are now expected to tool up and fill the gap. Where the sons and daughters of those who would now score zero points on an immigration application enjoy a success that has many fathers, but not their own.
Immigration is now so toxic, its suppression so central to the thriving of the Conservative party, that the contributions of “the wrong kind” of immigrant – the kind that looks like Javid’s father – must be minimised, along with the value of the sort of jobs they did. This is not an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the new immigration policy. As Patel says: it is the point.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist. Her latest book is We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent