Police attempt to stop illegal migrants from jumping on to lorries headed for Britain in Calais 29 October. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Five questions for anyone who says “it's not racist to talk about immigration”

To pretend that racism doesn’t play a role in generating hostility towards, and anxiety over, immigration is naive, if not disingenuous. 

Are you as fed up as I am with what passes for a “debate” over immigration in this country? With the utter falsehoods and lazy  generalisations? With the fact-free premises and contorted conclusions?

There are two statements (assumptions?) in particular, repeated incessantly by people on the left and right alike, that make me want to pound my head against a brick wall.

The first is the rather specious claim that critiquing, or even discussing, immigration is some sort of inviolable taboo in modern, multicultural and PC-obsessed Britain. “Just because immigration is deeply controversial,” wrote Labour’s David Blunkett in – where else? – the Daily Mail on 27 October, “that cannot mean that we should avoid talking about it.”

Sorry, but is our former home secretary having a laugh? We talk of little else. Consider the past few weeks: Blunkett’s article was prompted by the Tory Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s claim on 26 October that migrants from the EU were laying “siege” to the UK and “swamping” British towns. (Fallon himself, incidentally, was only echoing Blunkett’s own use of the word “swamping”, 12 years earlier, to refer to the children of asylum-seekers; while Blunkett, lest we forget, was echoing Margaret Thatcher’s dog whistle, a full 23 years earlier, about the UK being “swamped by an alien culture”.)

The day after Blunkett’s column, the Tory business minister Nick Boles said in a magazine interview that “we can’t control” immigration from the EU. The following day, Ed Miliband and David Cameron clashed in the House of Commons over – yes, you guessed it – immigration and, specifically, the PM’s failure to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year. Then, on 1 November, the Labour MP Ian Austin, a former adviser to Gordon Brown, said his party should “be honest” and “say sorry” for opening the borders to eastern European migrants in 2004.

The second claim that makes me want to tear my hair out relates to racism. Or the supposed lack of racism in this so-called debate. Right-wingers, in fits of faux outrage, denounce the left for crying “racism”. Left-wingers, wrote the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, in January, call “everyone who wants a proper debate on immigration ‘a racist’”. Lefties, meanwhile, bend over backwards to avoid using the R-word. “It is not prejudiced to worry about immigration,” Miliband declared, after Ukip’s triumph in the European elections in May. “It is understandable.”

Maybe. But to pretend racism doesn’t play a role in generating hostility towards, and anxiety over, immigration is naive, if not disingenuous. Those who piously claim that opposition to immigration in the UK isn’t driven by prejudice, bigotry and hysteria, but rather by “legitimate concerns” over rising migrant numbers and a growing pressure on public services, should try answering the following five questions.

First, why, as Ipsos MORI’s managing director for public affairs, Bobby Duffy, has pointed out, has it “long been recognised in studies of attitudes to immigration that the areas with the lowest immigrant numbers are often those that express the greatest concern about immigration”? And, on a related note, why, in the words of Manchester University’s Robert Ford, an expert on Ukip, does support for Farage’s party tend to be “strongest in areas with relatively low migrant populations”, such as Clacton?

Second, why, when “net migration is down a quarter from its peak under Labour and . . . from outside the European Union is down to its lowest level since 1998” – as Cameron boasted at PMQs on 29 October – has concern about immigration continued to skyrocket, to a point where it now tops the list of voters’ priorities, ahead of the economy and the NHS?

Third, why do people think that far more immigrants live in the UK than actually do? (According to Ipsos MORI, Britons believe immigrants make up 24 per cent of the population. The real figure is 13 per cent.) Fourth, why was 70 per cent of the public telling Gallup as long ago as 1978 that Britain was “being swamped” by people with different cultures, even though net migration at the time was negative – more people were leaving the UK than were arriving – and had been so for more than a decade?

Fifth, perhaps crucially and chillingly, why do a quarter (26 per cent) of Britons – and, tellingly, a majority (51 per cent) of Ukip supporters – think the government “should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain)”, according to a YouGov poll in April? Isn’t the (voluntary) repatriation of immigrants, including the British-born children of immigrants, a hallmark of good ol’ fashioned far-right, racist politics? A policy advocated only by the BNP?

Yet politicians and pundits continue to hold their tongues. Take Ukip, a political party whose leader publicly worries about Romanians moving in next door and brags about taking “a third” of the BNP’s voters; which allies with a far-right Hitler admirer from Poland in the European Parliament. But don’t call them racist. The truth is, as the former Tory MP Matthew Parris has admitted, that “it need not be racist to talk about immigration but many who do are”. Or as another former Tory MP, the late Eric Forth, once put it, much more bluntly: “There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted and they need to be represented.”

Perhaps. I just wish our two main parties weren’t competing with one another to do so. It’s time to stand up to the bigots, not excuse, indulge or woo them. 

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.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Show Hide image

Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496