In this new political landscape, you have to find your heroes where you can. I never thought I’d reminisce fondly about the days of the Coalition, but when the Tories won outright I started getting a bit misty-eyed when I saw Nick Clegg mooning around the country with a face like a slapped arse, having been unceremoniously turfed off his “kingmaker” pedestal. I never thought I’d watch the US election results unfold and think to myself that George W Bush was “a bit rough round the edges with the old Iraq War thing, but an all right bloke really”. And I certainly never thought I’d feel nostalgic about the days of David “The Queen Purred Down the Phone at Me” Cameron, either. But then Theresa May turned up.
We knew who May was before she took power: she was the woman who once thought “Go Home” buses were a good idea. She also thought restrictions on freedom of speech and expression were necessary to counter terrorism and was vocal about wanting to withdraw Britain from the Human Rights Act. And yet, and yet. So many of us, naive and shell-shocked by the results of the EU referendum, were willing to proceed with optimism when we listened to her wax lyrical in her first speech as Prime Minister about the importance of prioritising the needs of the “just about managing” masses over “the privileged few”. She focused on social inequality and promised to tackle it with that old oxymoron “compassionate conservatism”. But there is nothing compassionate about applying the harshest sections of your immigration policy to school-age children.
We should be genuinely concerned about leaked letters which emerged today showing that May supported putting the children of illegal immigrants “at the back of the queue” for school places as a way to discourage people from entering the country unlawfully. At the height of the refugee crisis, she was engaged in an internal battle with ex-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan about the plan. Morgan quite rightly pointed out that it would be a logistical and ethical nightmare which risked producing pockets of extremism. It’s almost darkly comical to read her adding in a letter to David Cameron that this sort of policy “would reinforce negative stereotypes of our party”. And what unfair stereotypes they obviously are, eh?
There is a very simple reason why deprioritising the school applications from children of illegal immigrants is a bad idea: it’s because Britain doesn’t use its legal powers to enact revenge. We punish people for their own actions if they are criminal, but not for who they are. Holding a child’s education in jeopardy because their parents did something wrong goes against everything the UK is supposed to stand for.
This is the same reason why yelling at people on benefits with fourteen children that they “should be out on the streets, not in a house paid for by the taxpayer” doesn’t make sense. Parents do sometimes behave irresponsibly, or spend beyond their means, or enter countries illegally. But children are not bargaining chips, or punching bags, or commodities to be devalued in order to punish the owner. They are human beings, with the right to be seen as individuals and the right not to be biblically stamped with the sins of their fathers. Those fundamental beliefs underpin the existence of our National Health Service, our benefits system and our state education.
Ghettoising children into the worst schools in their area because of who their parents are, or pushing policies which make those parents too scared to send their kids to school at all, is one of the worst crimes you can commit against them. It sets them up for long-term failure and alienation, and makes them more vulnerable to the manipulation of charismatic extremist leaders. Although May’s original plans never saw the light of day, her government’s current efforts to introduce border controls into our public services mean that children will inevitably end up missing school because of the fears of their parents, and parents will end up scared to visit doctors or take their family members to hospital lest it reveal that they don’t hold British passports.
The fact that May thought it was reasonable to hold children to account for their parents’ actions in this way speaks volumes about her view on society, and her wrong-headed ideas about Britain. This is Theresa May conservatism stripped bare: uncompassionate, unmoving, uninterested in nuance, unresponsive to international humanitarian emergencies, inhumane. This week the mask has slipped, and what we’ve seen underneath shouldn’t be ignored.