Politicians and opinion leaders must speak out on the benefits of immigration if Britain is to have any chance of regaining its rightful place at the heart of Europe.
Elephant in the room
As James Carville didn’t quite say during Bill Clinton’s 1992 US presidential campaign, “It’s immigration, stupid”. That’s the issue that drove the UK’s triumphant Vote Leave campaign in 2016, whipping up xenophobia and racism to a level not seen in this country since Enoch Powell’s time in the 1960s. So why is immigration now the elephant in the room – the issue that politicians will not talk about?
Three years after the 2016 referendum, the power of this contentious but neglected issue galvanised enough voters to install in Number 10 an extreme right-wing prime minister, who laces his speeches and writings with racist jokes. It was enough to seal our country’s fate, as Mr Johnson had promised it would. For the EU, Britain is now a ‘third country’, its connections with its European neighbours brutally severed.
A few miles from where we both live, in South Devon, small family fishing firms are going out of business because of Johnson’s deal. It’s a pattern spreading across the country and in a widening range of sectors, including farming and horticulture. Yet local communities and their leaders remain largely silent. And opinion polls show that the shift towards Remain since 2016, slight at the best of times, has stalled, with only 45 per cent of respondents now thinking the decision to leave the EU was wrong. Given Brexit’s ever-unfolding negative impact, we must ask why.
We believe that, unless our leaders address the festering dislike or hatred of foreigners that is peculiar to the English, our society and economy will continue to stagnate or regress, while the dismantling of our democracy will persist unchecked. A new referendum on EU membership, if it were ever carried out, might well fail to deliver a convincing case for re-joining, so strong has been the media campaign to cast the EU as the villain.
Immigration and migration – defined as movement between and within countries – are part of what it means to be human. Freedom of movement within countries, together with freedom to leave and return, were recognised by the UN as a basic human right in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a bold expansion of the concept, the EU extended freedom of movement across all member states, formally enshrining it as one of four economic freedoms in a treaty of 1992 and a directive of 2004. As a policy, freedom of movement has paid off handsomely, contributing to a reduction in unemployment across Europe of up to 6 per cent and delivering an estimated growth in GDP of 1 per cent per annum in long-standing member states (those which joined prior to 2007).
Despite these gains, the ‘othering’ of immigrants, often accompanied by the harassment of other minority groups, is still being used to shore up the power of ruling elites, even in EU countries. In Hungary in 2020, for example, the government tightened its already draconian restrictions on asylum seekers while attacking the rights of women and of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In Poland, the ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party refused to take in refugees when it came into power in 2015, claiming they were carriers of parasites and citing the Muslim community as likely to cause particular problems. It has since encouraged around a hundred towns to declare themselves to be LGBT-free zones, triggering violent attacks on LGBT groups by far-right nationalists. Here in the UK, clauses in the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) bill would criminalise ‘unauthorised encampments’, a measure that is blatantly anti-Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. As Hitler and other tyrants have repeatedly shown, all you have to do to ‘unite’ a people is give them a common enemy – a minority group or groups. The Leave campaign in the UK did this very effectively, targeting immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and we are now living through the consequences.
It is difficult to prove, but equally would be hard to deny, that antipathy towards foreigners fuelled the 2016 Leave campaign and tipped the referendum result in its favour. Many were doubtless swayed by the sight of Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), standing in front of a poster captioned “Breaking Point”, which showed an advancing line of Syrian refugees. Dark ads on Facebook indicating imminent Turkish membership of the EU added fuel to the fire.
And since the referendum? Unlike the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon, who made a speech the very next day welcoming mainland EU citizens living there, telling them “Scotland is your home” and that their contributions were valued, no front-bench politician in England has had the courage to say how much this country benefits from immigration. A few from the opposition benches have spoken out, among them Jess Phillips and David Lammy, as too has Mayor of London Sadiq Khan. But the vast majority have been silent.
The referendum result disenfranchised more than three million EU nationals overnight, nearly all of them UK tax-payers and members of British communities, condemning many of them to live ‘in limbo’, unsure of their rights and entitlement to health care despite having paid into the system. Yet still our politicians, with a few honourable exceptions, will not speak out. Lives have been disrupted, damaged or destroyed; people face deportation from a place they have come to love and have made their home; others have chosen to leave rather than face discrimination and racism in their neighbourhoods or at work. The heartbreak was palpable at the time and is unabated five years on.
“… My feelings change daily from anger to despair. Being the wife and mother of British citizens counts for nothing, having lived here for more than 12 years counts for nothing; there are three million of us and we count for nothing, we are just pawns in a political game.” – Vanessa, from France.
“Now all I have accomplished here seems to be immaterial as I am just a bargaining chip. This is MY LIFE they are messing with, MY HOME and MY FAMILY.” – Gertrud Wiethölter, from Germany.Quoted in In Limbo: Brexit Testimonies from EU Citizens in the UK.
We cannot think of another advanced Western democracy where there would not be an outcry at such unfair treatment of such a massive group so well integrated with the rest of society. What’s to stop another ‘inconvenient’ group being targeted in a similar way, now that it’s clear no one will resist this? Judging by experiences in Hungary and Poland, cited above, this is likely to happen.
Not only the politicians, but even grassroots pro-EU and/or ‘Get the Tories out’ groups seem for the most part reluctant to highlight the immigration issue. Yet, without addressing this issue, we are allowing our national debate to continue to be dominated by a racist, reactionary, xenophobic agenda. Whether you want to re-join the EU or not, this has got to stop.
The poison must be drawn
It’s not a case of “It’s the economy, stupid”. During the Stronger In campaign, the atmosphere in much of the country, whipped up by the Leave campaign’s anti-immigration rhetoric, was so febrile that one pro-Remain MP, Jo Cox, was murdered by a far-right extremist.
Volunteers on pro-EU street stalls at this time often found it impossible to have a rational conversation with the many Brexit enthusiasts who came across as fanatical: we were repeatedly branded traitors, and the only issue people cared about, often to the point of shouting about it, was immigration. Likewise, on street stalls after the referendum, during the doomed 3-year campaign to Stop Brexit, on the rare occasions we managed to have a discussion with a hard-core Leave voter the debate almost always came down to immigration. People were often reluctant to come out with it at first – perhaps they felt some shame after all – but in the end it was there for all to see and hear. Again we were branded traitors: some snarled or spat their hatred, while others yelled and swore at us, shook their fists and told us we should be shot or strung up in the market place.
This toxic mixture of guilt-ridden suppression and incoherent rage needs placing in a historical context. It seems to us that the progressive criminalisation of hate speech under the Public Order Act of 1986 and subsequent legislation in the 1990s and 2000s turned racism, so prevalent in the days of Enoch Powell, into ‘the hate that dare not speak its name’, only for this pent-up hate to ‘come out’ again, at double strength, during the 2016 referendum campaign and its aftermath. “Brexit has given the British people permission to hate”, as one member of the public put it.
In one sense, this is healthy: the poison of racism and xenophobia must be drawn before the problem can be confronted and dealt with. But can the genie be destroyed, rather than merely forced back into the bottle?
Old demons return
An old National Front poster from the 1970s pictures the Union Jack and carries these words:
Put Britons First
REJECT Common Market
RESTORE capital punishment
MAKE Britain great again
SCRAP overseas aid
REBUILD our armed forces
Those of us who were young adults at that time remember actions and protests against the National Front. No Tory or Labour politician wanted to be associated with this overtly fascist and racist party. The Union Jack became synonymous with it, and as a result its public display was reduced. Now these nationalist feelings and policies have gone mainstream, allowing an extreme right-wing government to come to power. Many of the policies of today’s Tories are recognisably those of the National Front, albeit in an attenuated form, such that what we have is a kind of fascism-lite, or fascism with a velvet glove. Which begs the question: what will happen when the glove comes off?
Most of the population do not understand this. They think, for example, that Angela Merkel is a left-leaning liberal, whereas in fact she is the leader of the German equivalent of our former ‘one-nation’ Conservative Party. The reality is that the Conservative Party here has steadily moved further and further to the right. Starting in Margaret Thatcher’s time, a small group of extreme right-wing Tories kept chipping away, scheming and plotting until they had purged the party of moderates and gained control. The current Tory government’s agenda is to bypass and disempower parliament, undermine the judiciary, strengthen the far-right media and infiltrate education and any institution or system that has the power to challenge its authoritarian actions. It’s a trajectory chillingly reminiscent of fascism in 1930s Germany.
Political activists and ordinary principled citizens fought far-right ideology back in the 1970s and 80s. To shift public support away from the Tories and Farage now, we must fight it again.
But what are our chances of success? We can talk all we like about the economy; we can point to the policy disasters caused by ministerial incompetence; we can call out government corruption and flouting of the law. The sad fact is that not enough people care about these issues to vote against the Conservative Party, let alone take action against it. Most people still make their political choices based on how a political party or politician makes them feel – and they feel Farage and the Tories address their deeply embedded fear of ‘the other’, of ‘foreigners’, a fear that shuts out rational decision-making. This is the hidden underlying issue, the submerged reef that holed below the water line not only the Stronger In campaign but also the campaign for a People’s Vote, and that explains why today, as thousands of businesses face going to the wall, our politicians and people remain largely silent about Brexit’s consequences.
In his excellent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, US historian Timothy Snyder describes the progressive enslavement of a population to slogans and to a cause or belief, such as Nazism, or to a ‘God-chosen saviour’, such as the Führer or Trump. He quotes Victor Klemperer (German scholar and diarist, 1881–1960) several times, including Klemperer’s conversation with a worker at the end of the Second World War who, despite Germany’s defeat, said: “Understanding is useless. You have to have faith. I believe in the Führer.” Klemperer also describes losing friends in the early to mid-1930s to “magical thinking”: the open embrace of contradiction. People fell prey to Nazism just as they do to a disease.
We are up against similar forces now: an abandonment of reason, which is replaced by a vacuous belief in ‘sovereignty’, in ‘getting our country back’, in Johnson’s promise to “get Brexit done” (despite his giving no details as to what this really means). We now have a PM whose lies have warranted a dedicated website. Here is Snyder on Trump:
“One attempt during the 2016 campaign to track his utterances found that 78 per cent of his factual claims were false. This proportion is so high that it makes the correct assertions seem like unintended oversights on the path towards total fiction.”
In the UK we now find ourselves in a country where lies prevail and a huge swathe of the population accommodates them, is even largely indifferent to them and on whom rational arguments are lost. And there is widespread belief, aided and abetted by a virulently racist, right-wing gutter press, in the biggest lie of all: that this country is overrun with immigrants, who take jobs, benefits and housing away from British citizens.
Snyder again: “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
What can we do?
How can we change this dangerous state of affairs?
Hearts need to change before minds will change. More people must reject the hateful ideology of the current government. If we don’t start embracing and extolling the benefits to this country of people from other countries and cultures, who are now part of what it means to be British; if we don’t start vocalising the importance of immigration to our economy, society and culture, then as soon as this government sees its support waning it will once again ‘unite the people against a common enemy’ in order to maintain its grip on power. Our country will then be trapped in a downward spiral of deepening poverty and inequality, leading to ever- greater divisiveness and authoritarianism, and ultimately to tyranny.
It worked before and, unless more people start to reject such sentiments, it will work again. That’s why “It’s immigration, stupid”. This is the topic our politicians must address, positively and powerfully, if we are to regain our place in Europe and our self-respect as a civilised country, at ease with itself.
It isn’t difficult to make the case for immigration. A country with an ageing demographic and falling birth rates needs immigrants to make up for the shortage of workers in key sectors – health and social care being the obvious examples. It also needs them for their creativity and entrepreneurial flair, which enhance the dynamism and diversity of our economy and culture. Immigrants typically come to us ready educated and, if they do not make their permanent home here, often return to their country of origin at the end of their working life, so that their cost to the state tends to be low. Research has shown that they generally pay in far more in tax than they take out in benefits. Nor do they generally depress wages: studies show a small decline of 0.2–0.6 per cent in a few sectors, mostly affecting other immigrant groups and the lower paid. Medium to higher-paid groups can even see their incomes rise.
Now is a good time to make that case. Public concern about immigration is falling, according to a recent article in the New European. In the early 2010s, surveys typically found that immigration was people’s primary concern, but today it is often as low as ninth. In 2011, a mere 19 per cent of British people thought immigration had been good for the country, whereas now it is around half.
We urge our politicians and opinion leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, to take advantage of this shift in the public mood. Let’s hear it for the fantastic contributions that immigrants make to life in modern Britain!