On the morning of Theresa May’s resignation, the National Audit Office (NAO) released a report. It explored the Home Office’s handling of allegations of cheating in English tests for foreign students five years ago. Predictably, media outlets pulled planned coverage of the report as they raced to cover the prime minister’s tear-flecked speech.
In reality, the NAO report sheds more light on Theresa May’s legacy than her departing remarks. That’s because the NAO report highlights the work she intended to leave behind, rather than the Brexit crisis which was thrust upon her. It is a story about how she serves, as she called it in her speech, “the country she loves.”
In 2014 thousands of foreign students at UK universities were woken by a sharp knock on the door. They were given sixty days to leave the country. A documentary had outlined the existence of some cheating at testing centres, and the Home Office decided to respond by cancelling the visas of 30,000 people who had sat the test.
Caught up in this casual, callous act of collective punishment meted out on mostly South Asian students were people like Roni Mandal, who had just achieved a lifelong dream of studying in Britain, or Shammi, who was deported without recourse to appeal along with her three-and-a-half year old son.
The Home Office’s case was riddled with errors. They accused people of cheating who had never even sat the test in question, or sat it in a different city from the one they were accused of having done. Tens of thousands were caught up in the mess, while 1,500 went straight from their classes to detention – into an immigration system defined by neglect and abuse on an industrial scale.
Some of the students stayed and fought to clear their names. For many it was an issue of principle. But others found themselves cut off from their families, who did not believe that the esteemed British justice system would make false accusations.
Those that could scraped together the money for legal challenges, which showed serious failings in the Home Office’s use of evidence. The Home Office ignored them. Only this year did campaigning efforts pay off and force media pressure onto Sajid Javid to answer for his predecessor, Theresa May.
Media pressure could be brought to bear partly because the floodgates were already open. Throughout 2016 and 2017 a string of high-profile cases emerged of people who had lived in the UK all their lives, usually belonging to ethnic minorities, being sent to detention and even deported.
When it became apparent that vast numbers of these cases were the people who had rebuilt Britain after the Second World War, the Windrush scandal was born and brought down a Home Secretary – for a few months at least. But the Home Secretary who was chiefly responsible for these policies remained safely in No. 10.
The government spun the Windrush scandal as a regrettable mistake. But by now there had been too many accidents, and it was becoming clear even to casual observers that there was a problem at the heart of the Home Office. Yes, there may have been a culture of incompetence, but it was also a culture that according to one report handed out free cake to staff who achieved a sufficient number of deportations.
The culture was underpinned by a problem. It was a problem that caused vans with ‘Go Home’ printed on the side to be dispatched to minority communities. It was a problem that caused Border Agency raids on workplaces, housing estates and train stations, in which the largest group stopped for alleged immigration offences were British citizens – usually ethnic minority ones. It was a problem that had created a family migration system which tore partners apart and determined the validity of a relationship based on income. That problem had a name: Theresa May.
Theresa May, of course, did not invent harsh immigration policies. In fact, she inherited a considerable amount of the hostile environment architecture she deployed from the previous Labour government. But the criminalisation and relentless pursuit of migrants was a personal project of hers, and one she was proud of. She was determined to bring migration numbers down at any cost. This continued to the bitter end – when, on the morning of her resignation, it was announced that the government had missed its migration target for the 37th time. The numbers were all that mattered to Theresa May; and if the numbers had to be made up by targeting innocent people trying to live their lives, then so be it.
May’s strategy did nothing to stop our industries and our public services from being parcelled up and handed out to multinational corporations on a grand scale. Our cities continue to be a playground for foreign capital, which increasingly treats our land and our houses and our public space as its speculative toys while tens of thousands of people languish on the waiting list for homes. It was selective in who and what it wanted to exclude.
The relentless focus on capping migration fitted in with the old, well-worn divide and rule strategy which has characterised the Conservative government – to blame migrant workers living on the margins, benefit claimants or public sector workers for national crises which are none of their making. Theresa May’s “love” for this country did not extend to fixing the “burning injustices” she spoke of today. She could only protect it from the threats of innocent students, separated families, refugee children, and the Caribbean workers that Britain had sought in its hour of need.
The legacy of her political career is not a more just society but an iron wall of bureaucracy and contempt standing in front of those who love this country enough to want to call it home.