The Sunday Times

July 3rd, 2011

The useless don’t deserve jobs just for being British, minister

The late Miss Ann Hannay, sometime proprietress of the Dorchester Ballet and Dance Club in Dorset, which I attended many years ago in a church hall, welcomed any pupils whose parents could pay the modest fees, no matter how modest the child’s abilities. But when, occasionally, she came across an exceptional pupil with an unmistakable talent for dancing, she would say to my mother, sadly, that the girl couldn’t be English. In those days, that meant native British.

At the time I thought Miss Hannay was being rather harsh. After all, we had the great Margot Fonteyn, born plain English Peggy Hookham, though I discovered later that her mother was Brazilian-Irish.

But much, much later, living in central London, I began to think that Miss Hannay might have had a point. Between the shop assistants, dry cleaners, pubs, clubs, minicabs, nurses, coffee bars, waiters, car washes, receptionists, domestic cleaners and even florists, I came to realise that most of the people who are any good at something are not English — not native-born British. The only exception is at a local high-class French baker, where the French employees are deeply incompetent.

Time and again I have found that if someone has a willing manner, good, clear handwriting and an aptitude for mental arithmetic, they have been educated somewhere else: in Hungary, Russia or Poland, or more or less anywhere in the former Soviet bloc. They tend to speak better English than the natives, too, apart from their accents.

Conversely, I’ve found that anyone with very bad handwriting is virtually always British. And once, when I asked the price of 10 metres of some fabric, the English sales girl told me what it cost per metre and then actually got out a calculator.

That is why Iain Duncan Smith’s appeal to British businesses to give unemployed young Britons a job ahead of “labour from abroad” is likely to fall on deaf ears.

He is right that British employers are failing to employ their fellow countrymen and women. As the Labour MP Frank Field, the coalition’s poverty adviser, has recently shown from official figures, 87% of the 400,000 new jobs created during the first year of this government went to workers born abroad. Native-born young unemployed people are being left out in the cold.

Duncan Smith is demanding the help of the nation’s employers. He says: “As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance and not just fall back on labour from abroad … we also need an immigration system that gives the [British] unemployed a level playing field.”

But that’s the whole point. The playing field isn’t remotely level; nor is it likely to become so.

Young foreign workers are bright, highly motivated, enterprising and well educated. Young unemployed Britons are few, or none, of those things. In particular they are worse educated, most of them come from a culture of welfare dependency and all too many of them come from families where worklessness is a way of life. Few of them are prepared to accept hard manual labour or useful menial jobs, and few of them have the skills to be a waiter, plumber, nanny or stonemason.

People vary, of course, but as a generalisation the foreign worker is likely to be better and more hard-working than the comparable young Briton to whom Duncan Smith wants to give a chance.

It would be nice to find something simple to blame and something easy to change. No doubt Duncan Smith has given it a lot of thought. But the factors that have made so many young British people relatively useless are complex.

One might start by blaming an educational culture that has undermined the country’s schools and produced generations of illiterates and innumerates. Alternatively one might blame a welfare system — which doesn’t exist where the foreign workers come from — that has made it more pleasurable and more profitable for the low-paid to stay out of work and under the duvet, or to take benefits while also working in the black economy.

They do things differently elsewhere. I’ve noticed over the decades that the ordinary workers in this country who have struck me as capable and well educated — at least at the basic level of reading, arithmetic and good handwriting — are from foreign totalitarian regimes, ranging from former Soviet countries to Franco’s Spain. Quite what that says about how to achieve basic levels of education I am not sure, but I suspect it has something to do with discipline and a longing for something better, which will only come through self-help.

In any case, in terms of basic education, migrant workers seem to have had a better deal than the children of this country.

Given it is highly unlikely our education system and welfare culture will change overnight and suddenly start producing literate, numerate people who are keen as mustard to take on any honest work, Duncan Smith’s plea seems unreasonable. It’s tantamount to asking this country’s employers to pass over useful workers in favour of young natives who will only give them grief and lose them money — and who don’t want to do the work anyway.

What’s deeply depressing is that there seems to be two Britains. One is full of hard-working young people. Whether in the creative worlds of IT, media and music, in which Britain still excels, or in some of the skilled trades, there are huge numbers of people who are driven, responsible and independent. There are highly skilled people, young and old — doctors, lawyers, architects, civil engineers and academics — who work hard and well at all levels of their professions. There are also those who are desperate to find work, so restricting the influx of immigrants who compete for that work, as Duncan Smith suggests, might well help them.

But then there is the other Britain, the Britain of those who can’t — or can’t be bothered to — make it in a competitive workplace. It’s absurd to think that, in a time of great economic uncertainty, employers should be expected, out of the goodness of their patriotic hearts, to take on anybody like that. They have to compete with the rest of the world too.

If there is any solution to the problem of youth unemployment, Duncan Smith has yet to think of it.