First Published in The Times - 19th May 2023
From minimising the Holocaust to admitting voter suppression, the inaugural National Conservative Conference this week had it all. The far-right kites that were flown during this thinly disguised Tory leadership hustings should have us all deeply concerned about the future of Britain: one that is more insular and inward looking than ever before.
And this just scrapes the surface. The rhetoric is harsher still when it comes to migration, with Suella Braverman seemingly raising the heat week after week. From the hostile environment, to Windrush, a hard Brexit, and now an Illegal Immigration Bill that is itself likely illegal, this government has done their level best to make Britain as unwelcoming as possible.
There is nothing British about this, no matter how hard some might try to argue. It flies in the face of this country’s long history of welcoming others to make a home here. But it also, perversely, has a hugely negative impact on the economy - and thus all British businesses and workers alike.
Last week, the ONS reported that economic growth at the beginning of the year was a stagnant 0.1%. This week new ONS stats showed that there are more than a million vacancies in the UK workforce. There are now 196,000 fewer hospitality workers, 4,000 fewer NHS doctors and £60m worth of British crops left to rot. Ironically, without greater willingness to spend and invest, the government is in fact reliant on migration returning to pre-Brexit levels - or they stand to risk even more stagnant economic growth.
Inevitably in the debate about immigration, there are calls to focus on equipping British workers with the right skills instead. Government ministers have been on the airways insisting British workers must work harder and faster. This is where the government’s record gets even more ridiculous.
Skills and education in the UK have been gutted in the last 13 years. To illustrate, you need to look no further than Further Education Colleges. This is where most vocational courses are taught, and a disproportionate share of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. No other part of the education system has seen harsher cuts since 2010, with funding per pupil down 12%.
And not only are we not training enough young people, we are not training them with the right skills. While the world races for the green industries that will dominate the 21st century; Britain is barely at the starting line. Similarly, basic digital skills education for every school child is still nowhere where it needs to be despite digital skills becoming essential for many jobs and almost all of the most well-paid.
This lack of investment has a huge knock on effect for business. This week Stellantis warned about the future of car manufacturing in Britain. Last week, Make UK called for an industrial strategy. Next month hundreds of businesses big and small, from all parts of the economy will meet at the Trade Unlocked conference in Birmingham in an effort to influence election manifestos. It is likely that developing skills and bringing talent to Britain will be top of their shopping list.
Over the channel, things couldn’t be more different. The EU is investing in skills fit for the future; injecting Є99 billion on skills and people, with Є580m ring fenced for digital skills alone. They are doing this within the context of freedom of movement and without the ghastly rhetoric staining British discourse.
The evidence is clear: contrary to the embarrassing language on offer at the National Conservatism Conference, it is skills underinvestment holding us back - not immigration.
Forty years ago, my parents came from India to the UK to work as doctors in the NHS. That opportunity allowed them and me to contribute to this great country. Every town, possibly every street, has a story like this. From starting local businesses to caring for our families in A&E, immigrants have built a stronger Britain.
The answer to the great economic challenges we face cannot be more of a false debate between skills versus immigration.
We can be different. We can be a country that invests in skills and openly embraces the hugely positive impact of immigrants to the UK. The talent, ideas and opportunities are there for a Britain that is open-minded, capable and confident - even if this government cannot see it.
Praful Nargund is an entrepreneur and skills campaigner. He sits on the Labour Party’s Council of Skills Advisors and is a Councillor in Islington.