You can tell a lot about a country by what bring its citizens out on the streets. In France, millions demonstrated last week against banking bailouts and public money being used to prop up a failed financial system built on greed. Here in Britain we go on strike against foreign workers.
I say ‘we’ when of course it is only a relatively small number of workers who have been involved in wildcat strike actions against the importation of Italian and Portuguese workers to the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire. But they are mostly in key positions, in power stations and energy plants, and able to make a disproportionate impact on the economy. There are plans this week to shut down filling stations owned by Total, the French company which has imported the workers at Lindsey. Shades of the fuel protests in 2000 which a handful of hauliers and refinery staff brought the country to a standstill.
Workers in Longannet and Cockenzie power stations in Scotland have been active in the strike, though none of their jobs are remotely at risk from immigrants, and there are plans this week to organise an Edinburgh-to-London march against foreign workers. What a grim commentary on the state of industrial politics in modern Britain. In the 1930s, the Jarrow Crusade marched on London to demand work; now in 2009 they will be marching to demand that foreigners are sent home. The British National Party is finally in from the cold - inheritor of the great tradition of British industrial militancy.
It’s not that I don’t have a measure of sympathy with the strikers. It’s easy for politicians and middle class newspaper columnists to accuse workers of xenophobia (a polite word for ‘racism’) when they aren’t facing a similar threat to their jobs. If a barge loaded with Italian politicians were to tie up outside Westminster offering to do MPs’ jobs for less money I suspect we would discover overnight that this was an act of industrial warfare which threatened Britain’s economic livelihood, culture and way of life. MPs and Peers would be linking arms in New Palace Yard to prevent any of them entering the building. Though it’s unlikely there would be a wave of sympathy actions from other workers across the land.
But there are so many better reasons to take to the streets right now than over a handful of European workers in Grimsby who are here entirely legally. As countless billions of taxpayers’ money is handed to the private banks, why is no one demonstrating against socialism for the rich? Why are there no barricades in Downing Street to protest at the government’s monumental incompetence - a decade of policies which have run down manufacturing industry in order to turn Britain into a casino economy based on financial speculation? Why are people not marching down Threadneedle Street, demanding the head of the Governor of the Bank of England for doubling the national debt and printing money in order to bail out delinquent banks which can’t be trusted to manage an honest deposit account let alone the wealth of the nation?
Why not a demonstration against foreign tax havens, which are allowing British companies to evade a hundred billion in taxation? Why not demonstrate against the insurance companies whose dabbling in derivatives has helped destroy the pensions of the very same workers who are taking to the streets against immigrants? Why is it that, in Britain, it is foreigners who are the first to be prime target?
Gangs of foreign workers have been coming here ever since the Irish navigators were imported to dig the canals two hundred years. And immigration is a two way street: the long-running TV series “Aufwiedersehen Pet” was about British workers going to work in Germany on similar terms to the Italian workers in Lincolnshire. There is generally an element of social dumping when workers are shipped abroad - of firms undercutting local labour prices. But in Lindsey, the firm in charge, Total, insists there have been no local redundancies as a result of their sub-contractors, IREM bringing their own staff. Nor, they insist, are the Italian workers being paid less than the British ones - though no one has been able to verify this. No, there is something deeply troubling about the way this local dispute has grown into a rolling national strike of more privileged workers condemning all foreign workers.
There is a latent xenophobia in British society at all levels, but it requires political leadership to bring it out. And that is the most serious charge against Gordon Brown. He has made the British National Party respectable by borrowing its slogan of “a British job for every British worker” - and I don’t believe for a nano-second that a politician as seasoned and sophisticated as the PM didn’t realise the full significance of these words. Labour has been blowing the immigration dog whistle for the last two years, promising to give British families priority in housing, promising to withhold benefits from foreign workers, when most aren’t entitled to them in the first place. Labour has adopted largely the same immigration controls that the Tories advocated in 2005. By subtly appealing to economic nationalism in this way, the government has legitimised actions that set worker against worker. Now the entire strategy has blown up in his face.
Yes, I know that British workers are losing their jobs by the hundreds of thousands, and that unemployment is likely to reach 3.1 million later this year - almost exactly the same as the number of foreign-born workers. Gordon Brown has encouraged mass immigration, along with “flexible” labour policies, in order to drive down the wages and living standards of UK workers in the hope of attracting foreign investment. But that isn’t the fault of the employees who come here.
The British workers holding meetings today to plan the next stage of their campaign should pause and reflect. Do they really think it would be any better if immigrant workers were all sent home? Most public services would collapse. Those taking to the streets are relatively well paid and wouldn’t dream of working in a hospital for £14,000 a year. Perhaps the trades unionists among them should dig out their copies of that great socialist novel, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell to see how hostility to foreign workers was exploited by employers a hundred years ago. Plus ca change....