Immigrants from Eastern Europe are an all-too-convenient target for the Tory prime minister as voters still struggle despite reports of economic recovery.
January 14, 2014
WARSAW — British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recently announced plan to restrict social benefits for immigrants — in which he pointed at Poles as an example of a migrant group that abuses the system — is a strategy all about saving his career as the wonderful Conservative Party hero.
It’s unclear in what language Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the major Polish opposition party Law and Justice, spoke with the prime minister when he called to lodge his distaste for Cameron’s comments about Polish immigrants. Kaczynski’s English is poor, but somehow he managed to receive an apology from the prime minister, who apparently said he “did not have any intention to stigmatize Polish people” and “admires” the hard work they do in Britain.
Later the same day, the British prime minister made a similar declaration during a phone call with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk.
Nobody believes the assertions that Poles are a mercenary lot, probably not even Cameron himself. But his comments about Polish immigrants were far from accidental and are no doubt part of a political narrative that the Conservatives and their friends in the media have been spinning for a while now.
It is important to realize, though, that Poles got hit by ricochet. The campaign is really meant for British voters and is more accurately aimed against Romanians and Bulgarians, who as of Jan. 1 can legally work in Great Britain.
The conservative tabloid Daily Mail, which actively supports Cameron, has been writing about the Balkan tsunami for over a year. In January 2013, it published a story entitled “UK’s too cold for you” that was meant to deter Romanians and Bulgarians from migrating north. Two months later, the same newspaper warned that 175,000 immigrants from the two Balkan countries have already found jobs in the UK.
Finally, in December 2013, the Daily Mail reported that Romanians were arrested in London seven times as often as British people and that the Labour Party was offering them training on how to benefit from the UK’s social welfare programs.
Somehow, whether immigration is beneficial to the British budget and its economy seems never to have been a point of interest.
It’s the economy, stupid
Meanwhile, Cameron has been governing a country in a recession not remembered by the oldest Brits. Ignoring many economists, he adopted an austerity plan of major spending cuts. As a result, unemployment continued rising, the real estate crisis deepened, and the demand for goods dropped, making companies reluctant to invest.
In 2012, the government secretly abandoned the austerity plan, but Cameron has never acknowledged his wrong-headed economic policy. On the contrary, he continues to defend it in public. With the European and parliamentary elections approaching, in 2014 and 2015 respectively, he needs a scapegoat for the crisis.
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A Taste of Poland in the U.K. (Jaggery)
The average British citizen is not interested in economic policy disputes but nevertheless feels the crisis in their wallets. Even if the economy finally awakened from stagnation in the middle of 2013, salaries still did not catch up to inflation.
The British economy has serious structural problems, one of the biggest being the growing importance of London. The rising GDP is generated by a small and decreasing number of people belonging to a small group of highly qualified specialists from the capital. The rest of the population remains in a precarious position and seems doomed to stagnating or falling salaries.
Unfortunately, there is nothing paradoxical about frozen wages during a growing economy, and Brits know it very well. During the first industrial revolution (1780-1840), worker productivity rose by 46%, but salaries increased only 12%. The rest went into the pockets of the capitalists.
Managing those structural changes in the economic landscape is a great challenge for the Conservatives. On one hand, they support a free market and low taxes. On the other, their tenure depends on the votes of older, poorer people with few qualifications who have suffered the most from the economic policy of austerity. It’s the same group that feels threatened by immigrants who are not only competing for jobs in construction and the basic services sector, but also for beds in public hospitals.
Cameron wants to convince undecided voters that the Conservative Party is able to stop immigrants on the UK’s borders. It is a lot easier to tell people, “You are poorer because of immigrants” than “You are poorer because we killed the industry and we do not know what to do now.”
A pinch of cynicism will do.
Gazeta Wyborcza ("Election Gazette") is a leading daily newspaper in Poland, and the country's most popular news portal. Founded in 1989 by Adam Michnik and based in Warsaw, the paper is now owned by Agora SA, and is described as center-left.