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Cameron's 'Big Society' Press-Ganged Into Immigration Battle

09/05/2013 10:25 BST | Updated 08/07/2013 10:12 BST

When David Cameron managed to get enough votes to sweep to an uneasy coalition in 2010 he was enthusing about 'big society'. Many people were perplexed at the time - would we have to don police uniforms at weekends and fight crime or do a few hours of brain surgery after work?

To anyone with a functioning memory or knowledge of political history, the concept of big society being espoused by Thatcherite Cameron was bewildering. In 1987, arguing that people should not feel dependent on the community around them, Thatcher posed the question: "Who is society?" before coldly proclaiming: "There is no such thing. There are individual men and women and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people - and people look to themselves first."

It was puzzling therefore for David Cameron to suggest that something supposedly non-existent should suddenly become very real and very big - like some kind of benevolent Hulk appearing from nowhere to undertake unpaid community work.

Although Cameron hasn't spoken much about big society since the 2010 election, he now seems to expect it to fight a political battle with Ukip on his behalf. In the Queen's Speech he announced that NHS workers and landlords will become part-time Border Agency informants, checking the immigration status of people before providing them with health care and shelter. He hasn't announced yet that other essential things, like buying food or clothes, will require a passport.

This is a dramatic change with potentially huge ramifications for those conscripted into being Home Office spies. Cameron may believe in society - or at least say he does when it suits him - but this policy shows a lack of insight into communities. Politicians play members of the public off against one another at their peril. We DO notice it and we DO remember. Many people still remember the Stasi, for instance.

Cameron appears to have frantically scribbled the policy on a napkin as he watched the local election results come in. Since his party's woeful performance, he has suddenly become more jittery about immigration than Captain Hook was about ticking clocks.

It seems unlikely that immigrants themselves represent circling crocodiles for Cameron, as he is essentially a servant of transnational corporations that benefit from porous borders. It is more likely that the ticking clock Cameron fears is aligned with many in Ukip - but it is older than Ukip. The relentless ticking clock is inside the primitive beast at the core of his own party.

As much as the current Tory cabinet likes to pretend the party is progressive, something menacing and bloodthirsty lurks beneath the surface. There is no shortage of Tories whose 'traditional values' will prevent them from ever accepting cultural diversity or the EU pushing 'politically correct' things like human rights, equality and employee protection on us.

In days gone by, vulnerable or 'worryingly progressive' Tory Party leaders were dispatched by colleagues with predatory crocodilian instincts. A party leader would be stabbed in the back or forced to walk the plank. The rise of Ukip, however, has made attacks on Tory progressives more subtle and interesting.

The gradual drift of Tory Party members into Ukip and an increase in votes for the party has created division on Cameron's ship. Some grizzled old sailors like Nigel Lawson call for him to steer starboard. However, if he shifts to the right the Lib Dems might jump ship to Labour, who would dominate the centre ground. However, if he doesn't shift towards Ukip he may have a mutiny on his hands and be fed to the crocodile.

So Cameron is trying to draw the country to the right and get the public to do his work for him. By press-ganging NHS employees and landlords into tackling the apparent problem of illegal immigration, Cameron is taking a huge risk. There are few groups in the UK more angry with the Conservative Party than NHS staff. There is considerable opposition to efforts to shore up and privatise the health service and fury about scapegoating front-line staff for inadequate leaders and resources.

While divide and rule has worked historically in Tory battles against some industries, it is unlikely to work against health professionals. This is because the priority for health professionals is patient health, not what colour they are or where they were born. The NHS is staffed by people from all over the world - and many countries suffer as a result of Britain taking their health workers. They will not take kindly to becoming spies for Theresa May's failing Border Agency.