Nearly 50 years ago, Enoch Powell delivered his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham.
On Friday, about 30 miles up the road in a JCB factory in Staffordshire, David Cameron gave his ‘Tributaries of Tender Toughness’ version. It’s been a rough few weeks for the prime minister; Ukip is breathing down his neck, the Tory party poll ratings are still terminal despite the best efforts of Ed Miliband and only this week his promise to reduce net migration to tens of thousands has resulted in a net increase since 2010. Now was the time to set out his stall on immigration. This was to be his long-term plan 2.0. Or 3.0. It’s easy to lose count.
Cameron began by declaring his pride in Britain’s diversity. “We all owe a lot to the Polish builders who knocked up our loft extensions for half the price of the Brits down the road,” he declared. “And I’ve always loved the colourful dancing at the Notting Hill carnival. But we have to get it right. We’ve played fair with Johnny Foreigner and it’s time for Johnny Foreigner to play fair with us. I get that. And I believe that Johnny Foreigner gets that, too. Because in his heart of hearts Johnny Foreigner is a decent cove.”
Let’s look at the facts, he continued, before sidestepping the most inconvenient one of all: the immigration figures themselves. “We must beware of the snake-oil of simple solutions,” he said, before outlining his own solution with what some might have considered simplicity. What was required was strong controls. The problem no one could possibly have foreseen was that Britain’s economy was just too successful – “the job factory of Europe” – and that hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans had come rushing here to pick cabbages in sub-zero temperatures for 75p per hour. At which point an alarm bell started ringing on the factory floor. It took the prime minister a moment or two to realise it wasn’t just ringing in his own head.
Now we were getting close to the source of the Tributary of Tender Toughness. Benefits and tax credits were not going to be made available to EU migrants until they had been in the country for four years, to stop Britain becoming a soft touch. Enough is enough. “Some will say this is impossible,” he said with near preacher-like fervour. “To them I say, ‘Why?’” The obvious answers were that he’d been promising to do something very similar for the past four years and hadn’t got round to it and that all the other EU leaders had said it was a nonsense.
But Cameron was no longer going to be held back by the negative energy of the naysayers. “It will be argued that freedom of movement is a holy principle and that what we are suggesting is heresy,” he said. “To which I say: hang on a moment. None of the other freedoms are as free as they were meant to be, so how about we make this freedom a bit less of a freedom to make it more in line with the other non-freedoms.”
Caught up in the tautology of his argument, the prime minister went on to make ever wilder and contradictory claims. He would enter tough negotiations with the EU because Britain had invented the single market. EU leaders would definitely see sense and he would back the referendum campaign to keep Britain in the EU with a renegotiated settlement. But if they didn’t, he would be equally tough and do the opposite. Just please, please, vote Conservative in May. By now the alarm bells were ringing throughout the country.
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