Maybe we are a bunch of Little Britons

Have the tabloids made us less tolerant of immigration, or are they simply reflecting their readers’

The "'Transatlantic Trends" report appears to reveal that Brits are more worried about immigration than any other country surveyed – worse than five other nations with more immigrants in their population, says the BBC's Mark Easton.

What could be responsible? Is it because we're an island nation, fearful of "contamination" or "invasion" from overseas, without the free flow of people provided by a land border? There is no comparison in the figures with a similar island, so it's hard to be sure. According to the Financial Times (link requires registration), as reported by Primly Stable, "Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."

It's tempting, as one of those bloggers who has written so much about the anti-immigration language and stories of the tabloid press down the years, to conclude that Brits are more worried about immigration than we should be because we're told to be more worried than we should be.

Certainly, headlines such as "Keep out, Britain is full up" (Daily Express, in an uncanny parallel of the BNP slogan "Britain is full up"), "Migrants take all new jobs in Britain" (Daily Express), "White men to face jobs ban" (Daily Express), "Asylum – you're right to worry" (Daily Mail), "They've stolen all our jobs" (Daily Star), "One in five Britons will be ethnics" (Daily Express), "Muslim schools ban our culture" (Daily Express), "Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers" (Daily Express) and "Strangers in our own country" (Daily Express) would appear to lead to that conclusion.

There are also somewhat misleading stories about race, ethnicity and immigration that pop up almost daily in the tabloid press. Just this week we have seen the Express's story about the ethnicity of doctors, shown by Full Fact to be not the whole picture by any means; and anti-war politicians labelled as "Muslims" rather than anti-war by the Daily Mail when they refused to give a standing ovation to a British soldier (but called him a "hero" nevertheless), as reported by Angry Mob.

It's tempting to see all of this going on and conclude that it's the angry, scaremongering language of the tabloids ramping up the fear factor when it comes to immigration – but that doesn't mean that the screamsheets are the only ones tainting the issue, or that they are the main agents responsible for what appears at first glance to be a rather intolerant, angry Britain depicted in the Transatlantic Trends survey.

For one thing, it's not just newspapers doing this: our politicians of all hues are more than capable of using dog-whistles such as "British jobs for British workers", linking "crime and immigration" in election manifestos and demanding impractical immigration caps as a red line during coalition negotiations, for example. It's not just the odious BNP, and their vile little cousin the EDL, who are doing the yapping about immigration.

For another, it may simply be the case that we are more anti-immigration in this country than liberals like me might like to think; and that politicians and tabloids alike, rather than driving the people, are being driven by them. I'd like to hope not, and I prefer to think of this country as a warm, welcoming, rich and diverse place to live – but it would be wrong to rule out the idea that we're Little Britons who want to pull up the drawbridge. Maybe a lot of us are.

Mark Easton's conclusion is a little more hopeful: he says that Brits are more confused than anything else and we think immigration is a lot more of a problem than it really is. If that's the case, then the language and tone of some newspapers when it comes to immigration can hardly help, particularly when they don't give the full picture. Even if they are reflecting the views of their readerships rather than defining them, and simply confirming the prejudices that already exist, newspapers aren't helping people see the full picture – which is surely what they should be there for.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.