SOME years ago, the actress Helena Bonham Carter remarked that David Cameron “wasn’t a right-wing” politician. She said he wasn’t even really a Tory and would probably be a reforming Democrat were he in American politics.
David Cameron liked to call himself a liberal “compassionate” Conservative, who urged us all to “hug a hoodie”, build the “big society” and be tolerant of sexual minorities. He said he was “passionate” about equality.
So what happened? Has the PM had a compassion bypass? Last week Cameron attacked Jeremy Corbyn (who seems to be getting something right these days) for “standing up … for a bunch of migrants” in Calais. Is that really how he regards refugees? Probably, because he was speaking the day after he initially rejected giving refuge to some of the 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children.
In the same episode of Prime Minister’s Questions, Cameron vigorously defended the iniquitous bedroom tax. He made clear that he supported the Department of Work and Pensions’ shocking decision to appeal against a court ruling in favour of a victim of domestic violence and the family of a disabled teenager’s right to a “spare” room.
Timing is everything in politics, and this showed almost wilful disregard for people in difficult circumstances. There is a welter of evidence that the welfare reform measures introduced by Cameron in his war against “skivers” have led, if not to actual suicides, then to very considerable stress for people least able to cope with it. A humane prime minister would surely have promised to reflect on the judgement which was made, after all, by the Appeal Court.
With unconscious irony, David Cameron then proceeded to celebrate the blatant sweetheart deal with Google, which has allowed the internet behemoth to largely avoid paying tax on an estimated £6bn in profits made in Britain. It has agreed to pay all of £130m on this cash pile – a nominal rate of 3 per cent. Nice work if you can Google it.
This arrangement is now rightly to be investigated by the European Union competition watchdogs following complaints including from the SNP. Many in Brussels regard it as an attempt to lure other big corporations to Britain with the discreet promise of special treatment.
Seen from Europe, Britain is turning into a rather dodgy tax haven – Jersey writ large – where banks and giant corporations concoct bizarre schemes of tax avoidance. Such as the “Double Irish”, which allows firms to transfer funds through multiple intermediaries to disguise the origin of their profits. Once again, the timing could hardly be worse.
Britain is tacitly allowing companies to avoid paying hundreds of millions if not billions in tax while seeking to swipe benefits from EU citizens who have come to Britain to work and pay their taxes in full. Cameron claims that migrants from countries like Poland and Bulgaria are arriving in such prodigious numbers that they are straining our welfare state to breaking point. We need an “emergency brake” which will halt the flow. He is demanding a four-year ban on access to in-work benefits or else he will take his ball away from Brussels.
But this is a ludicrous issue upon which to decide Britain’s future in Europe. There is no evidence that EU migrants are coming to Britain to languish on benefits, which are anyway among the lowest in Europe. Benefits tourism has been shown repeatedly to be a myth, not just by the EU Commission studies, but also the government’s own Migration Advisory Service.
In reality, EU migrants make a significant net fiscal contribution: they pay more in tax than they consume in services. Nor are they idlers drawn here by the “magnet” effect of benefits. They are generally young, hardworking, and contribute to the cost of our ageing population. What a way to treat paying guests.
The image all this presents to the rest of Europe is of a Britain led by a prime minister of almost Dickensian mean-mindedness. The EU is currently wrestling with the problems of resettling hundreds of thousands of legal refugees from tyranny in a programme which, of course, Britain has opted out of. In Brussels last week, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of shame at the way the UK has washed its hands of this crisis, while poorer countries have honoured their responsibilities.
Yet in Charles Dickens’s, day, Britain used to be regarded across the world as a tolerant and liberal country which welcomed refugees from tyranny, and which accepted people with unorthodox views. Karl Marx, a Jewish emigre, wrote Das Kapital in the library of the British Museum. Britain is now getting a reputation as a narrow-minded and self-interested nation that stood aside from the Greek crisis and then tried to block controls on the banks which had done so much to aggravate its debt.
The strange thing about this is that, from what I know of him, David Cameron seems a moderate and personally engaging individual. He is certainly no Donald Trump. He has in the past been well to the “one-nation” end of Conservative thinking. He is certainly liberal on many issues of personal morality, like equal rights for minorities, same-sex marriage, and he advocates gender balance, even if he doesn’t achieve it. He has always opposed attempts to cut British aid spending.
It is almost as if Cameron is being forced to the dark side by the logic of the times. The pressure of an increasingly intolerant and sour-faced press; the intense lobbying of Government by wealthy private interests; the relentless anti-European prejudices of his own backbench. Leading the Nasty Party has coarsened him.
In the aftermath of the financial crash and the great recession, Britain has become a nastier and more fearful place. The Prime Minister is presiding over growing inequalities of wealth and opportunity, and an in increasingly truculent plutocratic elite which largely escaped responsibility for the economic misfortunes of the day.
The most depressing thing is that, according to the opinion polls, many ordinary working and middle-class people seem to agree with him. They believe that Labour, not the banks, caused the financial crisis, and that immigrants, not businesses, are the cause of their depressed wages and lost jobs.
The PM is essentially a salesman, a front-man for the elite. In turning right, he is going with the flow as he sees it. So, welcome to Cameron’s Britain, a country which slams the doors on refugees and benefits claimants while inviting big corporations and banks to take advantage of an elaborate welfare state for the rich. A country where if you are big enough, you hardly have to pay tax at all.
Instead of being required to contribute to the cost of services, the wealthy and powerful are taken to lunch with politicians and HMRC bureaucrats and invited to make a contribution to our flag-day social services. Nothing too onerous; don’t want to fall out over this. (Oh and by the way, how about a job after I retire from “public service”?)
Cameron’s much-vaunted compassion hasn’t been allowed to get in the way of creating a true-blue Tory Britain where the workers and the poor are in their place and personal wealth is the measure of all things. A Britain that even Mrs Thatcher would have hardly believed possible.
Sunday Herald 31/1/16