Then a thought occurred. “Er, tell me,” I said, “what proportion of the people you employ are, you know, from London? I mean, how many of them are, ahem, British?”
Katie looked embarrassed. She knew exactly what I was driving at.
“To be honest, about 10 per cent,” she said. “But why?” I asked. “Why is it that these jobs are not being done by London kids? What can I do about it?” The restaurant recruitment consultant looked thoughtful. “It’s the schools, I think,” she said. “They teach the kids that they can earn all this money but they don’t explain that they will have to work hard. The people I recruit — they have a different work ethic.”
Now we all know that what Katie is saying is true, and we all know that it isn’t enough to blame the immigrants. For starters, we can’t kick people out when they are legally entitled to be here under EU rules. Second, and much more important, it is economically illiterate to blame Eastern Europeans for getting up early and working hard and being polite and helpful and therefore enabling the London catering trade to flourish.
There isn’t some fixed “lump of labour” that means these jobs would otherwise be done by native Britons. The chances are that there would be fewer restaurants, since the costs would be higher and the service less good and the reputation of London as the world capital of posh tucker would be less exalted than it is today.
The failing lies with the last Labour government, which did not do enough to reform our education system and to make sure that young people were prepared for the jobs market.
London schools have been getting better — and it is a fact that even in some of the poorest parts of the city, schools are now performing better than those in many other parts of the country. Some good work was done by Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis in trying to free up education — and yet they were blocked at every turn by Gordon Brown and the teaching unions. As Blair once said, he had the scars on his back to prove it.
The result is that huge numbers still leave primary school — about one in four — unable to read or write properly or to do basic maths. No wonder they will lose out, in the jobs market, to industrious people from Eastern Europe who can take down a telephone message correctly.
Labour spent its time in government — a long period of economic plenty made possible by the Thatcherian supply-side reforms — on a protracted borrowing binge.
They borrowed people from other countries to fill this country’s skills gap and to keep costs down — and did nothing like enough to reform our education system to enable young people to cope with that competition. They borrowed astronomic sums to maintain the welfare state and all its bureaucratic appurtenances — and did absolutely nothing to reform the system so that we could cope when money was scarcer.
All these reforms must now be carried out, by Conservatives, against a tough economic backdrop. It is not easy, and it means saying some hard things. We need to explain to young people that there can be glory and interest in any job, and that you can begin as a waiter and end as a zillionaire. And it is time, frankly, that London government — boroughs and City Hall — had a greater strategic role in skills, so that we can work with business to make sure that (for instance) catering gets the home-grown talent it needs.
Above all, we must support Michael Gove in driving up standards in schools — and what does Labour have to say? Nothing, except to join the chorus of union-led obstructionism. What does Labour have to say about welfare? Nothing, except apparently to support every detail of the system that gave Mick Philpott the equivalent of £100,000 a year. Well, nothing will come of nothing.
Why would anyone give the Treasury back to the people who wrote these vast blank cheques against the future? Why give the key back to the guys who crashed the car?