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

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The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump's speech? What he didn't say

No politician uses official speeches to put across their most controversial ideas. But Donald Trump's are not hard to find. 

As Donald Trump took the podium on a cold Washington day to deliver his inauguration speech, the world held its breath. Viewers hunched over televisions or internet streaming services watched Trump mouth “thank you” to the camera, no doubt wondering how he could possibly live up to his deranged late-night Twitter persona. In newsrooms across America, reporters unsure when they might next get access to a president who seems to delight in denying them the right to ask questions got ready to parse his words for any clue as to what was to come. Some, deciding they couldn’t bear to watch, studiously busied themselves with other things.

But when the moment came, Trump’s speech was uncharacteristically professional – at least compared to his previous performances. The fractured, repetitive grammar that marks many of his off-the-cuff statements was missing, and so, too, were most of his most controversial policy ideas.

Trump told the crowd that his presidency would “determine the course of America, and the world, for many, many years to come” before expressing his gratefulness to President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama for their “gracious aid” during the transition. “They have been magnificent," Trump said, before leading applause of thanks from the crowd.

If this opening was innocent enough, however, it all changed in the next breath. The new president moved quickly to the “historic movement”, “the likes of which the world has never seen before”, that elected him President. Following the small-state rhetoric of his campaign, Trump promised to take power from the “establishment” and restore it to the American people. “This moment," he told them, “Is your moment. It belongs to you.”

A good deal of the speech was given over to re-iterating his nationalist positions while also making repeated references to the key issues – “Islamic terrorism” and families – that remain points of commonality within the fractured Republican GOP.

The loss of business to overseas producers was blamed for “destroying our jobs”. “Protection," Trump said, “Will lead to great strength." He promised to end what he called the “American carnage” caused by drugs and crime.

“From this day forward," Trump said, “It’s going to be only America first."

There was plenty in the speech, then, that should worry viewers, particularly if you read Trump’s promises to make America “unstoppable” so it can “win” again in light of his recent tweets about China

But it was the things Trump didn't mention that should worry us most. Trump, we know, doesn’t use official channels to communicate his most troubling ideas. From bizarre television interviews to his upsetting and offensive rallies and, of course, the infamous tweets, the new President is inclined to fling his thoughts into the world as and when he sees fit, not on the occasions when he’s required to address the nation (see, also, his anodyne acceptance speech).

It’s important to remember that Trump’s administration wins when it makes itself seem as innocent as possible. During the speech, I was reminded of my colleague Helen Lewis’ recent thoughts on the “gaslighter-in-chief”, reflecting on Trump’s lying claim that he never mocked a disabled reporter. “Now we can see," she wrote, “A false narrative being built in real time, tweet by tweet."

Saying things that are untrue isn’t the only way of lying – it is also possible to lie by omission.

There has been much discussion as to whether Trump will soften after he becomes president. All the things this speech did not mention were designed to keep us guessing about many of the President’s most controversial promises.

Trump did not mention his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US, nor the wall he insists he will erect between America and Mexico (which he maintains the latter will pay for). He maintained a polite coolness towards the former President and avoiding any discussion of alleged cuts to anti-domestic violence programs and abortion regulations. Why? Trump wanted to leave viewers unsure as to whether he actually intends to carry through on his election rhetoric.

To understand what Trump is capable of, therefore, it is best not to look to his speeches on a global stage, but to the promises he makes to his allies. So when the President’s personal website still insists he will build a wall, end catch-and-release, suspend immigration from “terror-prone regions” “where adequate screening cannot occur”; when, despite saying he understands only 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood services relate to abortion and that “millions” of women are helped by their cancer screening, he plans to defund Planned Parenthood; when the president says he will remove gun-free zones around schools “on his first day” - believe him.  

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland