Westminster may dabble in xenophobia, but the reality is that racism isn’t popular

Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have.

Painted in a certain light, Britain in the summer of 2013 can be made to look pretty nasty. Government vans crawled the streets with a threat to migrants conveyed in the tone of a police state and the idiom of the far right: “Go home or face arrest.” Politicians blame every malaise on foreign interlopers: new arrivals with jobs must be jumping the queue; those without work must be gobbling benefits and hogging hospital beds. Westminster cringes before Ukip, a party that lubricates intolerance with theatrical pub cheer.

But with a change of palette, the same country can be construed differently. The menacing vans have been steered off the streets by the threat of a legal challenge, exposing a failure of process at the Home Office. The stunt has been quietly disowned by Downing Street. (“The Prime Minister probably didn’t even know it was happening,” a senior Tory adviser tells me.) Even Nigel Farage affected distaste at a “nasty, Big Brother” device.

The anxiety about immigration that shows up in opinion polls is not matched by an exclusion of immigrants and their families from British culture. Only a year ago, the nation cheered Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill, flagbearers for multi-ethnic Britishness, as its Olympic king and queen. TV audiences elected a Hungarian dance troupe as this year’s winner of Britain’s Got Talent. It isn’t a scientific reading of the collective mood but it suggests we are some way off from nationalist frenzy.

For every ministerial dabble in the vilification of migrants, there is a caveat of admiration for the contribution that foreigners have made to the enrichment of these isles. That is the paradox of British political xenophobia – the racist element in populism must be discreet because overt racism isn’t popular.

There is plainly some ugly bigotry expressed in Ukip’s rise but the stronger animus is reserved for politicians from other parties who are accused of colluding in an open-border policy and sneering at anyone who objects. Conservative and Labour MPs say the pro-Farage voters they meet on the doorstep barely distinguish between a blue and a red rosette. They are treated as interchangeable logos on one governing machine.

So there may be less mileage than Conservative strategists think in boasting that the Tories are slamming shut the gates supposedly left open by Labour. When official statistics show net migration falling, voters don’t believe it. Besides, the transitional controls on migration from Bulgaria and Romania – EU members since 2007, whose access to the British jobs market has been delayed – will be lifted in January 2014. Ukip officials barely contain their glee at the unravelling this portends for Conservative claims to be running a “tough” border regime.

Labour suffers from a complex of agonies over immigration. It knows it has lost thousands of votes over the issue. The political computation of that number is then muddled by contradictory impulses: anti-racism as an ethical hallmark of left politics; a tendency to be automatically pro-European for fear of overlapping with Little Englanders’ cartoon hatred of Brussels; a liberal conviction that enterprising migrants are good for the economy and society; a less liberal distaste for the way globalisation treats labour as a fluid resource, sloshing across borders at capital’s behest.

Then there is Ed Miliband’s background as the son of Jewish refugees from the Nazis. The Labour leader is obliged by political reality to address resentment of mass immigration and driven by his upbringing to see the migrants’ side of the story. That could be a recipe for indecision. It may also be a useful combination, because immigrant communities in marginal seats could decide the outcome in a closely fought general election.

Non-white voters do not have uniform political preferences but there is a clear pattern of mistrust of the Tories. There are Conservatives, mostly in urban constituencies with thin majorities, who see this as a long-term crisis for the party. Their concerns have been swept aside in the tactical dash to plug the leak of angry white votes to Ukip.

By contrast, Labour’s position – interpreted generously – is to focus on the causes of antiimmigrant feeling: low wages; a housing crisis that breeds resentment of foreign families in council properties; the skills shortage in an army of unemployed youth. Miliband’s aim, say his friends, is to move the conversation away from race and on to systemic failings in an economy that permits the routine exploitation of migrants and neglect of local labour forces.

That was the point the shadow immigration minister, Chris Bryant, tried to make in a speech on 12 August but the message was garbled. The intervention was erected on a platform of factual error, resulting in an overnight rewrite and a panicky retreat from attacks on corporate employers, encouraging the less generous interpretation of Labour’s position as an unprincipled shambles.

That is unfortunate, because Miliband’s nuanced line, treating immigration anxiety as a function of deep-rooted economic insecurity, deserves an airing. Britain is not a nasty country. Nor is it poised to instal a Ukip government, as more level-headed Tories can see. One Conservative backbencher, lamenting his party’s fringe obsession, recently told me: "People talk about Nigel Farage’s great charisma. Actually, I think a lot of people see him as a bit of a dick."

Westminster devotes more energy to decoding what goes on in the minds of the one in ten voters who might back Ukip than it does to understanding the larger number of people who know that Faragism isn’t the solution. There is in any society a bitter, defensive streak that can be brought out by fear and a generous side that thrives on trust. Britain’s immigration debate would look very different if ministers overcame their fear of the fringe and trusted voters with a more honest account of the country we have and the kind of country most of us want.

A van carrying the Home Office's message to illegal immigrants: 'Go home or face arrest.'

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
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What the tragic case of Charlie Gard tells us about the modern world

People now believe medical science can perform miracles, and many search for them online.

If Charlie Gard had been born 40 years ago, there would have been no doubt about what would, and should, happen. Doctors treating a baby with a rare genetic condition that causes the body’s organs to shut down would have told his parents “nothing more can be done for him”. Charlie – deaf, epileptic, his muscles wasted, his brain probably damaged – would have died peacefully and unremarked. If an experimental US treatment had given such children an estimated 10 per cent chance of survival, his parents would not have known about it. Even if they had, they would have sorrowfully deferred to British doctors.

Now people believe that medical science can perform miracles and, through the internet, search the world for them. Yet they do not trust the knowledge and judgement of the medical profession. They rally public support and engage lawyers to challenge the doctors, as Charlie’s parents unsuccessfully did in the hope of being allowed to take their child for experimental treatment in America, despite warnings that it would be ineffective and distressing for him. This is a strange situation, the result of medical progress, social media, globalisation and the decline of deference. It causes much heartache to everybody involved but, like Charlie’s death, it is probably unavoidable.

Mogg days

A few weeks ago, Jacob Rees-Mogg was a 50-1 outsider for the Tory leadership. Now, as I write, he is third or fourth favourite, quoted by the bookmakers at between 6-1 and 10-1. For a few days, he was the second favourite, ahead of both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond and behind only David Davis, the clear front-runner. Perhaps Davis organised rich friends – of which I am sure he has a few – to flood the market with bets on Rees-Mogg to frighten Tory MPs into rallying behind him.

But do not write off the man dubbed “the honourable member for the early 20th century” – generously, in my view, since he looks and behaves as though he has stepped off an 18th-century country estate and he actually lives on a 17th-century one. Rees-Mogg, a hard Brexiteer, would be an appropriate leader if we left the EU with no deal. Having excused ourselves from the world’s largest and most cohesive trading bloc, our best prospect for earning our living would be as a giant 18th-century theme park. Who better than Rees-Mogg to front it?

The royal revenue stream

Princess Diana is the gift that keeps on giving. TV companies produce documentaries on the anniversaries of her death and marriage. New tapes, photos and letters are unearthed. Anyone who cut her hair, cleaned her windows or sold her a frock can make a bob or two from “my memories of Diana”. Most important, Diana guarantees the future of the royal family for at least another half-century. In an ITV documentary, Prince William spoke movingly and sincerely (as did his brother, Harry) about losing a mother. Even the most hard-hearted republicans must now hesitate to deprive him also of a throne.

Strictly newsreading

I am a BBC fan. I regard the requirement, imposed by the Tories, that the corporation publishes the names and salary bands of employees paid more than £150,000 a year as an attempt to exploit “the politics of envy” of which Labour is normally accused. But I wonder if the corporation could help itself by offering even more transparency than the government demands.

It could, for example, explain exactly why Gary Lineker (£1.75m-£1.79m), Jeremy Vine (£700,000-£749,999) and Huw Edwards (£550,000-£599,999) are so handsomely paid. Do they possess skills, esoteric knowledge or magnetic attraction to viewers and listeners unavailable to other mortals and particularly to their women colleagues who are apparently unworthy of such lavish remuneration? Were they wooed by rival broadcasters? If so, which rivals and how much did they offer? Have BBC women received lower offers or no offers at all? The BBC could go further. It could invite a dozen unknowns to try doing the jobs of top presenters and commentators, turn the results into a programme, and invite viewers or listeners to decide if the novices should replace established names and, if so, at what salaries. We elect the people who make our laws and the couples who go into the final stages of Strictly Come Dancing. Why shouldn’t we elect our newsreaders and, come to that, Strictly’s presenters?

Mail order

A tabloid newspaper, founded in 1896 and now with its headquarters in Kensington High Street, west London, obsessed with the Islamist terror threat, convinced that it speaks for Middle England. An editor, in the chair for a quarter-of-a-century, who makes such liberal use of the C-word that his editorial conferences are known as “the vagina monologues” and whose voice is comparable to that of “a maddened bull elephant”. Sound familiar?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about Splash!, a newly published satirical novel about a tabloid newspaper from the long-serving Daily Mail columnist Stephen Glover. Now I have had early sight of The Beast, due out in September, also a satirical novel about a tabloid paper, written by Alexander Starritt who briefly worked on the Mail after leaving Oxford University. Like Glover, he pays homage to Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop, where the main characters worked for the Daily Beast, but there the similarities end. Glover has written what is essentially a defence of tabloid journalism. Starritt offers a fierce, blackly comic critique, though he cannot, in the end, quite avoid casting the editor Paul Dacre – sorry, Charles Brython – as a heroic, if monstrous, figure.

How many other journalists or ex-journalists are writing satirical novels about the Mail? And why the presumed public interest? Newspapers, with fewer readers than ever, are supposed to be dying. Fiction publishers seem to disagree. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue