Immigration, immigration, immigration: Mehdi Hasan on Cameron's speech

Cameron’s speech is lazy, ill-informed and inflammatory.

From Munich to Hampshire. David Cameron's speech in front of a Conservative audience later this morning will argue that immigration "threatens our way of life", in the non-inflammatory headline of the Torygraph. (You can read the full text by clicking here.)

There are (obvious? cynical? valid?) questions about the timing and tone of the speech. Is this a tactic to divert attention from the coalition's blunders on NHS reform and the nurses' attack on the hapless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley? Did the Prime Minister's earlier denunciation of Oxford University's manifest failure to admit black students provide him with the requisite "cover" to take a potshot at immigrants? Is his (renewed) focus on forced marriages and English lessons a legitimate and proportionate intervention in a vital area of public policy or a crude dog-whistle to the Tory right and BNP-type voters? I'll leave you to make up your own minds (below the line?) but I can't help but note this tweet from ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie:

Increasingly nervous about core Tory vote, Cameron makes immigration speech

Hmm. That's very "responsible" of him. Perhaps the most frustrating and irritating claim that the PM makes in the speech is that Labour ministers "closed down discussion" of immigration. Yawn. As I noted in a post for Comment Is Free during the general election campaign last year:

One of the hardiest myths in British public life is that there is a conspiracy of silence on immigration. Liberals and leftists, it is alleged, have banded together to prevent debate or discussion of "mass immigration" into the UK, caused by Labour's "open-door" policies.

Really? Tell that to the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the BBC, Channel 4, Michael Howard, Phil Woolas, MigrationWatch – the list is endless.

And in an excellent and informative post this morning, Sunder Katwala of the Fabians says:

The idea that debate about immigration has been silenced and closed down in Britain is a pervasive myth.

But, as a matter of fact, it can be easily disproved if one goes and looks at what politicians said and did throughout the period, or reviewing the endless noisy public debates about immigration, and volumes of legislation on immigration (broadly in a restrictive direction) under almost every postwar government, whether Conservative or Labour. I published a Comment Is Free post, "The Enoch myth", in 2008, offering chapter and verse, which proves beyond any reasonable doubt just how noisy these decades of supposed silenced debate always were. (Cameron, perhaps prey to the myth, says in his speech: "I remember when immigration wasn't a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again." I wonder if he could cite any five- or ten-year postwar period which he has in mind when he claims that?)

It is interesting to reflect on the drivers of the sense of political disconnection which means that this is widely believed but that is a very different thing from the myth being true.

Cameron directly echoes Michael Howard's election posters in 2005, which proved somewhat less effective than the Conservatives hoped at the time, and which had the rather odd aim of starting a debate about immigration which will not be distracted by allegations of racism by starting a debate about racism and being silenced, rather more than to start a frank and rational public debate about immigration itself.

It was rather odd to claim that the other major party was treating all discussion of immigration as verboten – because I clearly recall that Labour had election posters in 2005 which proclaimed in bold, primary colours "Your Country's Border's Safe", and it would be to rewrite history rather spectacularly to claim that Labour home secretaries such as Jack Straw or David Blunkett did not speak about immigration.

But, let's be honest, or "frank", as the Prime Minister likes to say: this isn't about immigration. This is about Cameron.

As Anthony Painter notes over at LabourList:

David Cameron is in trouble. And when he's in trouble, he panics and presses the race, identity, welfare and immigration buttons.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.