Yesterday evening, I attended the Stevenage Conservative Association annual dinner, held at the Novotel. Having seen Stephen McPartland, our MP re-elected in May, everybody was in good spirits.
Our guest of honour was the Rt Hon. Ann Widdecombe DSG. Ann Widdecombe was member of parliament for Maidstone and at one time, a serving cabinet member. She made the transition from politician to television celebrity, mainly through her appearance on Strictly Come Dancing and she is loved across the country because of her straight-talking, no-nonsense attitude. She is also a fellow convert to Catholicism.
She briefly visited the table at which I was sat, encouraging us to be optimistic about Conservative prospects. She asked each of us how we would vote in the referendum on Britain's EU membership. Everybody on my table said they would vote for 'Out' except for myself and a lady who said it would depend on Cameron's re-negotiations for reform. I find it disconcerting that I am one of the few Europhiles in the association.
In her speech, Ann Widdecombe talked about the resurgence of plain bad old socialism with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn. She pointed out his unelectability and argued that once the Labour Party realised this, he would be out of the job. She predicted that Labour would have a new leader in two years time and so there was no place for complacency. The Conservative Party had to avoid in-fighting and to show that it has the best policies.
Ann also raise the subject of immigration in her speech. She stated that there were three strands to the issue of immigration. Work permits were absolutely fine, as these enabled the country to meet the skills it needed. I agree with her that work permits are a good thing, but it is not always easy to identify what skills are needed. For instance, there is an impending shortage of nurses due to nursing not being identified as an area of need. There is also talk of Indian restaurants closing, because Indian chefs cannot get work permits. The second strand identified by Ann was immigration from Eastern Europe under the principal of free movement in the EU. She argued that while this had its benefits, it had caused a massive problem of infrastructure. I don't disagree that this has put pressure on local government in some areas, but I think the economic benefits of Eastern European workers have compensated for this quite adequately. She said that there is no prospect of ending free movement of labour, but there was a need to restrict the availability of benefits for European immigrants. The problem with this is that there is an inherent unfairness in workers paying taxes for benefits that they do not receive. There is a limit to how far we can fairly restrict the access of benefits to migrants.
The third strand of immigration she talked about was asylum seekers. She argued that the majority of asylum seekers are able-bodied young men. She asked why those from Syria were not fighting against ISIS. She believes that the majority of these asylum seekers are economic migrants. She advocated the arbitrary detention of all asylum seekers. A harsh measure, but I'm sure it would solve the migrant crisis. On the other hand, I'm not sure it is feasible. Aside practical issues and humanitarian objections, I suspect there is probably some piece of European or international legislation that tells us we can't do that.
When she opened the floor to questions, she was asked by an association member about immigration. Somebody suggested the danger that Britain could be taken over by Muslim extremists given that many Muslims have more children than typical British families. Ann replied that children of Muslim immigrants have solidly British values. We should therefore avoid a xenophobic attitude that distrusts immigrants because they have lots of children. I found that comment very refreshing.
Ann was also asked about the subject of national ID cards, a topic that I have not heard anything on for years. Remarkably, Ann turned out to be in favour of introducing compulsory national ID cards. Not very many people in the Conservative Party would share Ann's view and I can't say I like that idea myself. However, it is refreshing to hear Ann Widdecombe's distinctive brand of authoritarian Conservatism, that stands in contrast to the libertarian trend in modern Toryism.
She was also asked whether she would vote to leave the European Union in the coming referendum. Ann replied that she would very much like to see Britain leave the EU, but if there was a vote on the question tomorrow, she would vote to stay in the EU. She said that those advocating 'Brexit' needed to explain exactly what arrangements they wanted for a future post-EU Britain. She raised several economic objections to leaving the EU. I was gladdened to hear this, though I think she ruffled quite a few feathers in the association!
I asked Ann Widdecombe what she hoped to see from the Synod on the Family. She replied by talking about the imporance of upholding the unchanging teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage. She suggested that Anglicans needed to take lessons from the doctrinal rigidity of Catholicism.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.