Liberal Heroes of the Week #82: David Willetts and Douglas Carswell

by Stephen Tall on January 4, 2015

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum

cf hero - david willetts

David Willetts

Conservative MP, former universities minister
Reason: for opposing his party’s plan to cut back the numbers of overseas students

So often this column is a toss-up: do I make person X a ‘Liberal Hero’ for opposing a madcap policy, or person Y a ‘Liberal Villain’ for dreaming up said madcap policy in the first place? Generally I prefer to accentuate the positive, and that’s why David Willetts is this week’s Hero, instead of Theresa May a Villain, for opposing the home secretary’s proposal to restrict the numbers of overseas students.

The Conservatives are, you may have noticed, desperate to show they have cut net immigration in an attempt to see of the electoral threat from Ukip. This has proved a bit tricky as the official statistics from the ONS show net migration at 260,000, higher than the 244,000 recorded in 2010 when the Coalition came to power.

(NB: the commitment to cut net immigration was never a Coalition target; only ever a target set by the Conservatives within the Coalition… A point emphasised by Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable in one of my favourite quotes by him.)

So Theresa May has hit on a quick fix: requiring foreign students to leave the country at the end of their courses. Yes, that’s right: the leading candidate to be next Conservative leader wants to impose greater regulation on higher education, one of this country’s leading export industries reckoned to earn more than £10 billion for the country. How’s that for striking at the principle of free movement of goods, services and people? (Let alone the free exchange of ideas.) The party of freedom — really?

Fortunately, there are saner voices in her party. Former Conservative universities minister David Willetts — one of the last One Nation Conservatives still around, and someone who should, quite frankly, have already made it into the Liberal Hero canon before now — has made clear his contempt for Mrs May’s plan, writing in The Times of the importance to this country of overseas students:

More than four million students every year leave their home country to study: of those almost half a million come to the UK. There is a global trend for more students to study abroad. We should aim to increase our share of this growing market. But if we implement the latest idea from the Home Office for new restrictions on overseas students, we would not only miss this golden opportunity — we would be acting in a mean-spirited and inward-looking way. …

We already have a very strict regime for post-study work, so a graduate can only stay to work for up to two years if it is a “graduate job” with a licensed sponsor and paid a minimum of £20,300. This is more restrictive than our competitors. It is easier to find a job above the pay threshold in London. We should remove the incentive for overseas students to leave Manchester or Newcastle to work in London by setting lower minimum pay rates for post-study work outside London. That would follow up George Osborne’s exciting vision for a “northern powerhouse”. …

The future is more openness and more mobility. We must seize the opportunities created by the world’s appetite for British education.

Quite so. The genuinely puzzling thing about Mrs May’s latest purported crackdown is that there is a far easier way to cut the number of overseas students included in the net immigration figures: stop counting them as immigrants. After all, few of the British pubic think they should be classified as immigrants. Even Ukip thinks it’s a nonsense. As British Future’s Sunder Katawala puts it:

Government policy is to attract more international students and to increase our share versus Australian and American competitors. Including something that you want to increase, in a category that you want to reduce, makes no sense. The public think so – and since UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and Labour all agree on this, it is difficult to see what is stopping the Conservatives from joining them.

It shouldn’t need Two Brains to understand this. But I’m glad he’s there pointing out the nonsensicalness of this policy to his party. Let’s hope Mrs May is listening.

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Douglas Carswell

First elected Ukip MP
Reason: for telling his party it should stop its offensive dislike of foreigners and adopt a serious internationalist agenda

On the face of it, 2014 has been a staggeringly successful year for Ukip: the party won a national election (May’s low-turnout Euros), and saw its first two MPs elected at by-elections.

Yet it was also a year of failure for its leader, Nigel Farage. Instead of broadening Ukip’s national appeal, he ended up re-toxifying its brand with casually xenophobic and sexist remarks. As a result, Ukip is further away than before from achieving its goal — the UK voting to withdraw from the European Union in any future referendum — because its leader opts to preach to his 15% of zealots, rather than reach out to the majority in Middle Britain.

One man understands his leader’s strategic error better than most: recent convert, Douglas Carswell. Writing in the Daily Mail, the Clacton MP invokes a feel-good, Reagan-esque ‘Morning in Essex’ weltenschauung:

There has never been anything splendid about isolation. It was our interdependence that put the Great into Great Britain – and it is what sustains our living standards today. In such a world, a dislike of foreigners is not merely offensive, but absurd. … Far from being a party that tolerates pejorative comments about people’s heritage and background, Ukip in 2015 has to show that we have a serious internationalist agenda. We stand to realign our trade relations precisely because we wish to join in with the rest of the world. Increased interdependence is going to mean ever greater labour mobility – not just between countries but between continents.

His ‘Bright Purple’ brand of Ukipperism won’t win my vote — but it’s intellectually coherent and electorally plausible. Farage’s golf bore protest-schtick can take Ukip only so far; Carswell’s actually looking to build a majority for positively rejecting the EU. And he knows that to do so, Ukip must shed its “a bit racist” image, must engage with modern Britain as it is. Quite liberal, quite heroic. Which is why he joins David Willetts as this week’s other Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.