Now we know. Boris Johnson’s exclusive “global talent visa”, to be launched in February, is aimed at “the world’s scientists and mathematicians”. It will prove, he says, that post-Brexit “the UK is open to the most talented minds in the world” – so long as they are scientists. As for entrepreneurs, economists, humanitarians, historians, artists, let alone mere caring human beings, they should stay put.
Johnson’s home secretary, Priti Patel, says it is “about time” Britain learned to breed its own lesser class of worker. As for breeding its own scientists, that is apparently beyond its capacity.
It is not for want of trying. The Cult of Science has been an obsession since the 1979 general election, when Thatcher first declared that Britain needed more scientists. The humanities and social sciences were treated as subversive, unproductive, valueless and, worst of all, unquantifiable. In both Britain and the US, education policy had been traumatised by the Soviets putting a man in space – the result, it was believed, of making all young Russians study science. No one noticed that they were starved of politics and economics.
For decades, every British election manifesto became a Kitchener-like plea for recruits to the cause. Science and its acolyte maths were elevated to “core subjects”. By the turn of the century, science was virtually a new religion. To question it was heresy. Its priesthood ruled the curriculum, crammed the honours list and received acres of uncritical airtime from the BBC.
What happened was nothing. The British car, ship, airline and computing industries all but collapsed. A draconian emphasis on maths has merely led to Britain having to rely on the Chinese for digital infrastructure. Economic success was based instead on finance, design, marketing and trade. Everyone knows this, yet it remains anathema to say so. The priests have even brainwashed an erstwhile classicist prime minister.
At which point, another neglected discipline might raise its head: ethics. By what right does Britain slam the door on “untalented” economic migrants from the world’s poorer countries, while boasting it will raid their reserves of scientific talent? The NHS already devastates the medical graduate pools of India and Africa. Now Britain is to poach whatever scientists they have left. This is aid-in-reverse: “soft power” at its crudest and most imperial.
There is no rhyme or reason to the new populism. It is driven by chauvinism and outdated cliches. Britain does not “need” more scientists. It needs what its employers will pay to recruit. A Tory government should accept that the labour market knows best. Britain’s economic performance – and its wider culture – has long benefited from immigrants, be they rich or poor at the point of entry. Turning them away makes no sense.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist