It has become fashionable of late to say that it’s high time we had a frank, open and honest discussion about immigration.
Never mind that this empty platitude is primarily uttered by the same demagogues who owe their political or media careers to either whipping up excessive fears on the subject, or sweeping it under the rug while smearing dissenters with the toxic charge of racism; that particular irony, though amusing, is beside the point. Zealots on both sides have come to realise that there is political capital to be made in positioning oneself as the straight-talking voice of reason, and pulling off that particular deception in the eyes of the voters requires going on the record saying how terribly important it is that we talk honestly about immigration.
Even casual followers of the news cycle will notice that the most strident calls for this long-awaited symposium on immigration funnily enough happen to coincide with each advance in the polls made by UKIP, or with every time that Nigel Farage contrives to leave the legacy party leaders looking impotent, or worse still, in active collusion with one another. This has led to accusations of cynicism – they’re only calling for a discussion about immigration now because UKIP are breathing down their necks, comes the predictable refrain. But in fact we have been holding a reasonably thorough and robust conversation about immigration for some time now – or, to be more precise, we have all been talking a lot about the subject. Where we have consistently fallen short, though, is the listening part, without which a truly meaningful conversation can never take place.
It’s one thing to ferment and encourage a national cacophony on immigration, with both sides repeating their basic talking points at an ever-increasing volume while parsing the actions and statements of the other side not in search of common ground but only for the prized “smoking gun” of treasonous or racist intent. This low skulduggery of the university debating circuit is about all our broken politics has proven itself capable of doing, which is why we are now wallowing in so much of it. But at some point we must call out our leaders for promising a national conversation, and then simply shouting over one another and engaging in tactical one-upmanship.
The gulf between the discussion on immigration that Britain needs and the one which we are stuck with was finally brought home to me during a spirited but ultimately fruitless argument with the Telegraph’s prize columnist, Dan Hodges, on Twitter last week. Hodges – unabashedly pro-immigration in all circumstances, and lightning quick to impugn the motives of anyone who takes a less absolutist view – had written another one of his hand-wringing columns demanding that the main political parties finally stand up to what he sees as UKIP’s toxic and overt racism:
Enough. David Cameron. Ed Miliband. Nick Clegg. You each believe in the case for managed migration. So make it. For God’s sake, grow a pair, stand up, and make your case. At the moment each of the main party’s lines consists of telling the British people “We think immigration is broadly a good thing. So this is what we plan to do to stop it.” Who is that going to convince?
Ukip have now taken the immigration debate into places where the mainstream parties simply cannot follow. Someone asked me on Twitter yesterday “Do you think Ukip are the BNP in disguise?” Last week Ukip were openly pledging to send back the immigrants. Where is the disguise?
This blog has long sought to understand the legitimate fears, hopes and motivations of UKIP supporters and sympathisers, and to resist the urge to cry “racism!” at the first opportunity. UKIP, after all, represent the biggest, most fundamental surge in support for the radical right (or at least anti-establishment) movement in our lifetime, and their generally small-government, pro-freedom platform (with some awkward exceptions and contradictions) is winning heartfelt and sincere support from decent British people who lack a single racist bone in their bodies. This being so, eventually I felt it necessary to take a stand against this latest distortion of the truth by Dan Hodges.
Hodges urges the party leaders to make the case for “managed migration”, but it is Britain’s membership of the European Union that means more than half of all immigration is completely beyond the power of the British government or people to influence. It would be very convenient for the pro-immigration left if this really were a battle between those who want a measured, controlled immigration policy on one hand and drooling, swivel-eyed xenophobes who hate all foreigners on the other, but that simply isn’t the reality. But not content with misrepresenting the status quo as a benign situation of “managed migration”, Hodges goes further and states that there is no essential difference between UKIP and the far-right British National Party.
At this point I weighed in on Twitter with a pointed remark:
I stand by my tweet. Dan Hodges is a white male of some privilege, and yet happily throws his rhetorical weight around on behalf of immigrants and minorities despite having absolutely no direct experience of racism, whereas I am mixed race and have on rare occasions been a first-hand target of racism. Though my negative experiences have mercifully been few and far between, I am still in a much better position to judge racism and racist intent than the son of Glenda Jackson MP will ever be.
Dan Hodges evidently had some time on his hands at the moment I tweeted, and decided to engage with me:
How incredibly facile; this was hardly the point I was making. My point was that the black man in the American South was a victim of policies that discriminated against him deliberately and explicitly because of his race. Objecting to unlimited immigration from within the EU, by contrast, doesn’t indicate an automatic, seething antipathy toward eastern Europeans, but rather a protectionist stance toward the domestic labour force when faced with cheaper competition from overseas. Such protectionism may be right or wrong, but it is most certainly not automatically racist, however much Dan Hodges wants us to believe otherwise.
The following is the remainder of the exchange between Hodges and myself:
(At this point I believe I was supposed to be grateful that Dan Hodges – my gallant, enlightened white defender – is watching my back, ready to fight my corner when the Home Office SWAT team comes to take me away).
After having gone full circle, there didn’t seem much point in continuing the debate. Dan Hodges proved himself utterly incapable of distinguishing between opposition to unlimited immigration (which is what he really means when he says “managed migration”) and hatred for other people based on their race or ethnicity. Note that I specifically probed him on the point more than once, out of sheer incredulity that a senior columnist at a respected national daily newspaper could have a racism detector so overly sensitive that the needle jerks from Zero to Enoch Powell faster than you can say “points-based system”.
And yet Dan Hodges is in no way a bad person. On most topics he is an astute, witty, even prescient columnist. He was one of the few Labour-supporting commentators who realised (and said) that Ed Miliband was a dud while the conventional wisdom still insisted that Red Ed just needed a bit more time to find his feet, and I’m sure he made a fair few enemies for being proven right. But Hodges has a huge, yawning blind spot when it comes to the subject of immigration, which is a problem for the rest of us because he is one of the privileged people who get to set the tone and content of the national debate.
Is there a similar blind spot on the anti-immigration side? Is it the case that sensible, well-made points in support of more immigration from within the EU are going unheeded by rabid forces on the right? Quite possibly. But even if this were so, the two blind spots would not be comparable. The pro-immigration side may not have the catchy slogans or the tabloid headlines on their side, but they possess something rather more valuable – a solid, unbroken grip on political power since Britain acceded to the European Community in the 1970s. Dan Hodges bemoans the fact that proponents of stricter immigration controls have seized control of the news agenda, but forgets the fact that the leaders of all three main political parties are indolent supporters of the status quo, and that whichever party wins the most seats in the 2015 general election will support Britain’s continued EU membership, and the free movement of people within the union.
If the establishment really wanted to neutralise the topic of immigration and cut the legs out from underneath Nigel Farage and UKIP, they could do so in a heartbeat. This blog outlined the simple but difficult step that they would need to take back in October, when UKIP’s second by-election victory in Rochester and Strood was still just a dark cloud on the horizon:
The challenge for the main political parties, if they want to survive past the 2015 general election, is this: find a way to make EU membership work for the bottom half of British society, and then sell it to them. If the protectionism of immigration controls is undesirable or impossible, what will Labour or the Conservatives do to equip Britain’s children and struggling adults to compete and prosper in today’s global labour market? And how will they promote and nurture a healthy sense of national identity, Britishness, amid so much change? UKIP are prospering not because the establishment has failed to solve these challenges, but because they haven’t even tried.
And then hammered the point home again, here:
The free movement of peoples in Europe is a wonderful idea. But in order for it to work painlessly, you need an education system that produces young adults capable of doing the type of skilled jobs that cannot be automated, outsourced or undercut by immigrants from poorer parts of the EU. And for the millions of British adults who currently lack these lucrative skills, you need viable pathways back into education or training to re-equip them to compete in this new world. That’s the difficult political conversation that nobody is having right now.
Thanks to combined failures of leadership, courage and imagination, it seems highly unlikely that any of the three main political parties will go into the 2015 general election with a manifesto that comes anywhere close to fundamentally retooling our nation in the way that we so urgently need. Would that it were otherwise. In fact, it could be otherwise – if only we would hold our elected politicians and Westminster journalists to better account.
Unfortunately this will only happen if we stop shouting past one another and start looking for common ground again – it really is there for the taking. A left-leaning commentator such as Dan Hodges should by rights have a lot to say about how the Labour Party can best address the legitimate economic insecurities and cultural fears of UKIP Man and Woman, which in turn might force the Conservatives to hone their own policies in response. If Hodges was less preoccupied with participating in the national shouting match, he would realise that antipathy to immigration is only a symptom of the real problem, and not the problem itself.
But as long as we see immigration opponents as racist by default, and UKIP supporters as nothing more than BNP activists in tweed, politicians will have very little desire to help these people, let alone to strive to understand them and earn their votes. And this contemptuous oversight will ultimately prove to be not just their loss, but ours too.