John Harris

Journalist & Author

Foreign nannies furore exposes worrying double standards among our political leaders | John Harris

David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s use of overseas domestic staff shows the real issue of immigration – class

Had it not been for all those headlines about Stephen Lawrence and the Ellison review, many of today’s papers may well have been a riot of outrage about the government and immigration. The story has unfolded through the week: a tale of mixed messages, plenty of cant, and wildly different experiences of the issue, depending on where you sit in the social hierarchy.

To recap: on Wednesday, the new Tory immigration minister James Brokenshire gave a not exactly eagerly awaited speech at the headquarters of thinktank Demos, outlining some of the ideas he is going to bring to a job he got when his predecessor, Mark Harper, resigned. Remember him? In the midst of all the government’s tough posturing – those notorious “Go home or face arrest” vans, for instance – Harper learned he was employing an illegal immigrant as a domestic cleaner and quit.

So in came his replacement: an unremarkable-looking fella, straight out of Westminster central casting, who might reasonably have been expected to say very little of any consequence. But no: on Wednesday, his very pointed message was seemingly addressed to his predecessor, among others. Brokenshire had a pop at the “wealthy metropolitan elite” for their use of cheap labour from overseas, and duly sparked no end of coverage – including, by yesterday, news that among those wealthy metropolitan types he may have had in his sights were the prime minister and the deputy prime minister. Nick Clegg, it transpires, employs a “lady” from Belgium as a home help; David Cameron has used nannies from Nepal and Australia.

The latter, one Sammi Strange, was apparently hired by the Camerons via a series of Skype interviews, like you do. At first, questions about her and the Camerons’ domestic staffing arrangements were stonewalled, but it was then announced she had now become a UK citizen, and all was therefore tickety-boo. “We have always said we want people who want to work hard and get on,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said. “Do we want the brightest and the best? Yes we do. And that would absolutely include, for example, Mr and Mrs Cameron’s nanny.” So that’s all right, then.

The Labour MP John Mann is now demanding that the entire cabinet disclose how many domestic staff from overseas they employ, while the general public chews over some very gristly examples of double standards, and Nigel Farage – assuming, of course, there are no Lithuanian gardeners, Gambian nannies or Costa Rican cooks on his payroll – prepares to make hay. In the coming weeks, there may yet be further stories about ministers proving their commitment to tough immigration policies and helping the benighted victims of unemployment by employing cheap domestic help from overseas. We shall see.

One other aspect of this story came earlier in the week, with an official report about immigration and its effects on the UK labour market, and the government’s apparent attempt to sit on it. The resultant coverage reflected another habit of the wealthy metropolitan elite: reducing immigration to a stupid numbers game – so that if you’re of a liberal-left disposition you claim that new arrivals have little or no effect on wages and unemployment, and thereby try to shut everyone up, while the right endlessly pledges to cut net levels of migration by this or that many thousand – to no appreciable effect.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, a very problematic reality has long taken hold which only a handful of politicians seem willing to talk about. The veteran Labour MP Frank Field, for instance, recently said this: “A new servant class, equal to that of Downton Abbey times, has been recreated. It’s not upstairs and downstairs any more, though. The elite bring the servant class in when they want cleaning done, ironing, gardening, decorating and so on.” Brokenshire would presumably agree. He also thinks too much immigration threatens to “force wages down and house prices up and put pressure on social cohesion and public services”.

You could put all that another way, in the kind of blunt language that most politicians choose to avoid, but which you can find buried in some speeches made a couple of years ago by Ed Miliband. “Immigration is a class issue“, he said in 2011. The words duly disappeared into the great fog of public indifference, but how right that was.

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