Comment: Farage's dream of an English-only Britain would be a nightmare

Natalie Bennett: 'Foreign students are worth at least £8bn a year to the British economy'
Natalie Bennett: 'Foreign students are worth at least £8bn a year to the British economy'

By Natalie Bennett

Ukip's spring conference was more of a whimper than a bang in all but one regard: commentators are saying, among them in the Telegraph and on Politics.co.uk, that it marked the point at which the party stepped over a line.

Both of these commentators focus on the comedian who performed at the after-dinner entertainment and, more importantly, Nigel Farage's defence of his deeply unpleasant act, leading Dan Hodges to say in the Telegraph: "Ukip is now a racist party".

I think it is worth focusing on what the Ukip leader himself said.


He told a tale about catching a train in London, not hearing English spoken and feeling "uncomfortable". Mr Hodges uses his personal knowledge about that particular train journey to debunk that, which makes Mr Farage’s words sound even more like those of the embarrassing aged relative who many of us have, who starts out by saying "I'm not racist…" followed by a whole list of reasons why "foreigners" are terrible.

It's really worth unpicking Mr Farage's words and thinking about what they’d mean.

First, if he doesn't want to hear foreign languages spoken on his public transport, then he apparently doesn't want any foreign tourists. All those Chinese and Korean tour groups passing through St Pancras station between London and Paris, paying over their cash to visit our attractions; all those wealthy Russians swanning around Knightsbridge stores; all the young European backpackers in the youth hostels. All of them are likely to be speaking a foreign language on a train or bus, hurting Mr Farage’s delicate sensibilities.

Of course they are also adding £24 billion to the national economy each year.

Then there are the foreign students – all those young Chinese and Koreans studying at Central St Martin's University of the Arts in King's Cross, the European students on Erasmus exchange programmes around the country (doubly bad no doubt in Mr Farage's eyes since it's an EU scheme, that also sends Britons to the Continent, where they might too pick up the habit of speaking these foreign languages), the students from the Indian sub-continent studying engineering and computer science, students from around the globe trying to acquire or improve their grasp of the English language that can be their passport to a good job wherever in the globe they come from.

Of course the government has already done a good job of slashing away at their numbers, with their intellectually incoherent policy of including them in the (failed) attempt to cap immigration numbers, even though the vast majority will go home at the end of their course, meaning they aren't properly immigrants at all. We've seen some results from this policy: for the first time at the start of this year, the number of foreign students applying to study at UK universities fell, just as Australia, Canada and other states are stepping up their numbers.

Nonetheless, foreign students are worth at least £8 billion a year to the British economy, the fees they pay essential to the funding of the majority of our universities, with the added benefit of future links between foreign business, government and civil society leaders with the UK.

Then of course there are the foreign workers - 11% of all NHS staff and  26% of doctors, and many others in essential jobs. Now here's a point where I might find some agreement with Mr Farage. We should be doing a much better job of educating and training enough Britons for these roles – we shouldn't be poaching health workers from around the world, in conditions of considerable shortage. And it's an indictment of decades of government policies that we are.

But to step up our education and training regimes, provide the expensive places and facilities needed, is something that will take a decade or more.

Then of course we come to other workers – the cleaners, the construction labourers, the care workers, the coffee shop attendants – who might also be speaking a foreign language on Mr Farage's train.

They're often blamed for dragging down wages – but I can guarantee that no worker has ever arrived on Britain's shores and declared: "I want to work for poverty wages, be forced to live in miserable, overcrowded, substandard accommodation and live with rampant job insecurity". No, those are the jobs the British economy has created, with the connivance, or all too often active support, of successive governments.

Those governments have kept the minimum wage below a living wage, allowed private social care companies to pay less than even the inadequate minimum wage, done almost nothing to enforce the quality of private rental accommodation and nothing to prevent gouging rents. They've allowed an explosion of zero-hours contracts, the return of employment practices at, or very close to, the infamous dockers lineup, and allowed gangmasters to operate exploitative, dangerous practices with near total immunity.

And so there are jobs mostly filled by immigrant workers, because they're not jobs that you can build a life on, that you can expect to be doing for decades as you settle down, buy a house, have a family. They are jobs where employers often prefer immigrant workers, because they're less likely to be aware of what limited rights there are and less likely to speak up due to abuses.

And immigrant workers, planning to be here for a couple of years, sending money back home, representing the most adventurous and risk-taking of their communities have filled those jobs, these dead end, low pay, often dangerous jobs, because they've got no alternative. That’s kept the prices of our food artificially low, the cost of services like cleaning and care rock bottom, and filled what would otherwise be gaping gaps in healthcare provision.

So Mr Farage, just imagine what a Britain would be like if you weren’t hearing any foreign languages on your train. It would be a much culturally poorer Britain, a much economically poorer Britain, a much less healthy Britain – in fact it wouldn't function at all. And if we assume this on quid pro quo, the 5.5 million Britons living abroad would all have come home, making the average age of our population much older, and trapping our young people here without the chance to travel, to learn, or to grow.

So Mr Farage, do you still fancy an English-language-only Britain?

Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green party.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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