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

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Leader: Europe and the long shadow of war

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place: the two great wars in the first half of the 20th century.

Amid all the claims and counterclaims about David Cameron’s so-called renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union, it is often forgotten, or conveniently ignored, just how successful the European project has been in helping to create and maintain the post-Second World War peace order.

We support continued British membership of the EU but are sceptical of the imperial ambitions of the European elites. We opposed British membership of the single currency, a decision that the eurozone crisis has vindicated. It is obvious that the Schengen Agreement is unravelling and in all likelihood is unsustainable, as embattled nation states reimpose emergency border controls and the continent grapples with its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Like the British government, we are opposed to further political and economic integration and to the creation of a federal or quasi-federal superstate.

However, at a time of profound instability in the world, we accept that it would be foolish for the United Kingdom to retreat from our various multilateral peace alliances – whether that be membership of the EU or, indeed, Nato (as some on the left would wish) – all of which involve some kind of surrender of sovereignty.

Amid the rancour, it is easy to forget what drove European integration in the first place. The two great wars in the first half of the 20th century racked the continent, with neighbouring armies slaughtering each other on a scale that still defies comprehension. As Alistair Horne writes on page 22, “the most atrocious battle in history” began a century ago next week in Verdun, France, on the Western Front. The German army hoped to lure the enemy into a trap and then “bleed the French army white” using its superior firepower. Yet the rivers of blood flowed both ways: in ten months, over 25 square miles, pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas, 300,000 French and German soldiers died.

The lessons of the battle were not quickly learned – the carnage of the Second World War was still to come – yet ultimately they were. In 1963, France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was wounded at Verdun, signed a treaty with the then German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, binding two countries that had engaged for centuries in tit-for-tat wars in an enduring nexus of co-operation. The aim, as David Reynolds notes in his article on page 28, was “to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism”.

Two decades later, President François Mitterrand, who fought near Verdun in 1940, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl, whose father served there in 1916, attended a commemoration ceremony at one of the battle sites. In what became an iconic image of reconciliation at the heart of Europe, Mitterrand impulsively gripped Kohl’s hand during their national anthems. The two men were later the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union under its current name.

These are troubling times for Europe. Confidence and optimism are low. The wars in the Middle East and the rise of Islamic State, Russian revanchism and financial and economic turbulence have dented the morale of even the most committed liberal Europhiles. In addition, the EU seems unable or unwilling to control or police its borders, just as it has been unable to bring an end to the crisis in the eurozone. Nor is it any closer to forging a common foreign policy, let alone forming a common European army that might be necessary in future years to patrol the outer edges of the continent.

“Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members . . . the Union will be on a glide path to collapse,” wrote the historians Brendan Simms and Timothy Less in a recent issue of the New Statesman. And yet, for all its flaws and present difficulties, the EU remains a force for stability in the world. It embodies the liberal, rules-based order without which barbarism and war are never far away, as the centenary of the Battle of Verdun so poignantly reminds us. 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle