Immigration: Cameron, Brown and Clegg all talk the language of limits

If St George were alive today, this non-EU citizen wouldn't score very highly on any points system.

This Friday, England will celebrate the life of a third-century Palestinian who was executed by the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

The festivities may be a little muted for, as patron saint of England, St George, and his cross, have been much misused by nationalists with a narrow idea of what "Englishness" should mean; which is at least partly why so many English people of more refined sensibilities feel reluctant to mark the day with enthusiasm comparable to that displayed by the Irish diaspora on St Patrick's Day every 17 March.

The trio of party leaders who took part in ITV's debate last week are, however, likely at least to acknowledge St George's Day on Friday. And this made me wonder how comfortably our patron saint's Levantine roots sit with the rhetoric of all three when the subject of immigration arose during the debate.

Cameron, Brown and Clegg all talked the language of limits.

The Liberal Democrat leader warned against "unreasonable strain on housing and public services". The Leader of the Opposition said it had "got out of control and does need to be brought back under control", while the Prime Minister responded in a manner that tried to make it sound as though Labour was already being tough: "I do not like these words," he said, "because we are bringing it under control."

I am not a regular reader of Socialist Worker, but I do find myself in agreement with this comment in the paper:

The consensus was perhaps most annoying on immigration. Cameron has been to places where poor people live and has even met "a black man" who was against immigration. "I want us to bring immigration down so it's in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands," said Cameron looking to the ceiling so to further look down his nose at the rest of us. Brown boasted that immigration had been falling since he moved into 10 Downing Street. Clegg said immigrants had to be lined up with jobs in a region before being allowed in. Clegg did manage to remember to say that there were some nice immigrants.

In the past there was much grumbling about the fact that immigration was a toxic subject - you could not bring it up without being accused of racism - and that Labour's failure, in particular, to address white working class concerns was fuelling the rise of the BNP. (Not that the Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has ever given the impression of being even vaguely liberal in the policies he's advocated. Indeed, he has been attacked by the Archbishop of York over his "unmerciful" stance.)

In principle I don't think there's anything you shouldn't be able to discuss in a democracy, so of course I believe it is perfectly legitimate to bring it up. It is somewhat disappointing, however, to find that now we have decided that we can talk about immigration, the leaders of the three main political parties all agree. It is, from the start, something to be worried about. They all, to a greater or lesser degree, paint it as an issue to watch, not benignly, but as something with the potential to cause havoc.

And you don't have to go very far down that path to be back with words like "swamping" or, these days, "Eurabia".

Those who claim to be worried about immigration always say that it is nothing to do with race. They always have. Here is what Enoch Powell had to say about it when challenged by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston on the BBC in 1969.

Huddleston: "What I still want to know from you, really, is why the presence of a coloured immigrant group is objectionable, when the presence of a non-coloured immigrant is not objectionable."

Powell: "Oh no, oh no! On the contrary... the reason why the whole debate in this country on immigration is related to coloured immigration, is because there has been no net immigration of white Commonwealth citizens... It is not because there is anything different, because there is anything necessarily more dangerous, about the alienness of a community from Asia.... that we discuss this inevitably in terms of colour."

I leave open the question of whether Powell, in many ways a remarkable man who was at various points not only the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth but also the youngest brigadier in the British Army, was a racist. There is no doubt, however, about the views of many who were inspired by his speeches.

But I would like to quote further from his debate with Huddleston, for it seems to me that the issue of how we treat our fellow men and women - whether one starts from a Christian or a Human Rights viewpoint - is always predicated in the language of universality. Immigration, however, is a subject that immediately shrinks its borders to that of nationality. It stands directly at odds with the universal beliefs we profess about rights and duties to one another.

Huddleston: "The Parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that our neighbour is everyone... it specifically says the Samaritan, the enemy of the Jewish people at that stage of their history, the man who could not be thought of as a neighbour because of his religious and cultural differences, this is the man who shows love to the other. Now, has this not got anything to say to you about the attitude of the white race to the black race?"

Powell: "It says to me that in Christianity there is neither black nor white, bond nor free; but in the world in which I live there is black and white, bond and free.... I find it insuperably difficult to draw deductions from my Christian religion, as to the choices which would lie open to me in my political life."

I don't think it's at all difficult to draw deductions from one's belief system and apply them to politics. In fact, I think a politics that did not draw from such principles would be no more than shallow managerialism.

When it comes to immigration, I freely admit that it is a difficult area and I do not pretend to know what the answer is - although my strong inclination is to ask why we should close the door to anyone, if we too wish to be able to travel and work freely around the world. I also find it hard to see how either a Christian or a humanist could square with his beliefs the act of turning away a "neighbour", merely because he wasn't in possession of the right passport or papers certifying his abilities at carpentry or plumbing.

I'll come to a close here, but would like to leave you with two final questions. If St George were alive today, he would be a non-EU citizen and his skills - dragon-slaying in particular - would probably not score very highly on any points system. Would we let England's patron saint in if he wanted to come and live here now?

I think we know the answer. Is it one of which we can really feel very proud?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.