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Britain's immigration debate has taken a turn for the toxic

Whether it is the attacks on migrants crossing the Mediterranean or questions about Nick Clegg's heritage, our national debate on immigration has taken a nasty turn.

The immigration debate has been spiraling into a toxic swamp propelled by cross-party consensus to "control immigration". While a coherent argument on immigration is decades overdue, the current anti-immigrant debate has slipped into a new realm, targeting second generation immigrants. The Daily Express has already attempted to classify the British born BME community as "hidden migrants". With this context, Evan Davis's interview with Nick Clegg was difficult to watch.

Nick Clegg proudly spoke of his European heritage, his Dutch mother, and his grasp of five languages. In an attempt to point out Clegg's elitist upbringing, Davis questioned if Clegg's multicultural upbringing has put him out of touch with the British working class. Davis had a number of examples of elitism to choose: his gap year, his time at Oxbridge, or his public school education. The choice to fixate upon Clegg's multicultural upbringing, suggesting it to be out of touch with "British" people, made for uncomfortable viewing. For centuries immigrants have been an integral part of the British working class. Within the context of the current immigration climate, it feels like further demonisation of BME people.

Davis's intention was unlikely to be intentional racial discomfort, but Clegg's furious reaction mirrored that of many children of migrants. Our Britishness is consistently questioned despite having lived in the UK for our entire lives. Casual racism is on the rise, particularly within politics. On the doorstep a BME canvasser is increasingly likely to hear "I don't want your people here", and worse. These experiences lead to racial sensitivity and passing comments questioning multiculturalism vs Britishness can be interpreted as a personal attack when coupled with modern attitudes to race in Britain.

For the British Asian community, the Ugandan exile was only one generation ago. The discussions of identity, culture, and language are still quite raw for many British migrant communities. Fueled by the rising anti immigrant sentiment, communities are continuously feeling unwanted. This is leading to a rise in extremism, as well as record levels of BME voter apathy. A BBC news personality should understand the effects of language within such a climate and should be able to recognise why using such an argument is harmful towards people already at risk of social exclusion.

Davis's unwillingness to comprehend the harm to BME communities demonstrates a lack of compassion, as well as a lack of cultural awareness at the BBC. His intentions may not have been malicious, but seeing such comparisons on prime time BBC One make the children of migrants feel like they must justify their heritage and language to all of the people they meet on a regular basis who question their identity. Davis does not have to regularly prove his 'Britishness' and therefore he is unable to comprehend his statement for people who have to regularly prove their British identity.

The immigration debate has taken a drastic turn if journalists are so desensitised to such cultural comparisons possibly causing harm. Britain has thrived on multiculturalism, yet if the "British working class" see multiculturalism as an elitist concept, we have serious problems with integration. Politicians need to prioritise multicultural integration within these communities if Davis's statement is true. The curriculum must be reformed to ensure young people are taking up languages. Our cultural divisions are being exploited by politicians and communities are falling behind. Integration can only go hand in hand with an acceptance of multiculturalism and diverse communities. For immigrants and their children, political discourse is attempting to create divisions within society. We constantly feel like we must prove our value and it is not helped by journalists inadvertently contributing to these divisions. We need to seriously look into why multiculturalism is regarded as an elitist concept, despite the "British working class" being extremely multicultural. Most of all, we need to acknowledge when the immigration debate creates sensitivity and unease within BME communities.

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On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.