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14 April 2011

Immigration, immigration, immigration: Mehdi Hasan on Cameron’s speech

Cameron’s speech is lazy, ill-informed and inflammatory.

By Mehdi Hasan

From Munich to Hampshire. David Cameron’s speech in front of a Conservative audience later this morning will argue that immigration “threatens our way of life“, in the non-inflammatory headline of the Torygraph. (You can read the full text by clicking here.)

There are (obvious? cynical? valid?) questions about the timing and tone of the speech. Is this a tactic to divert attention from the coalition’s blunders on NHS reform and the nurses’ attack on the hapless Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley? Did the Prime Minister’s earlier denunciation of Oxford University’s manifest failure to admit black students provide him with the requisite “cover” to take a potshot at immigrants? Is his (renewed) focus on forced marriages and English lessons a legitimate and proportionate intervention in a vital area of public policy or a crude dog-whistle to the Tory right and BNP-type voters? I’ll leave you to make up your own minds (below the line?) but I can’t help but note this tweet from ConservativeHome’s Tim Montgomerie:

Increasingly nervous about core Tory vote, Cameron makes immigration speech

Hmm. That’s very “responsible” of him. Perhaps the most frustrating and irritating claim that the PM makes in the speech is that Labour ministers “closed down discussion” of immigration. Yawn. As I noted in a post for Comment Is Free during the general election campaign last year:

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One of the hardiest myths in British public life is that there is a conspiracy of silence on immigration. Liberals and leftists, it is alleged, have banded together to prevent debate or discussion of “mass immigration” into the UK, caused by Labour’s “open-door” policies.

Really? Tell that to the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the BBC, Channel 4, Michael Howard, Phil Woolas, MigrationWatch – the list is endless.

And in an excellent and informative post this morning, Sunder Katwala of the Fabians says:

The idea that debate about immigration has been silenced and closed down in Britain is a pervasive myth.

But, as a matter of fact, it can be easily disproved if one goes and looks at what politicians said and did throughout the period, or reviewing the endless noisy public debates about immigration, and volumes of legislation on immigration (broadly in a restrictive direction) under almost every postwar government, whether Conservative or Labour. I published a Comment Is Free post, “The Enoch myth”, in 2008, offering chapter and verse, which proves beyond any reasonable doubt just how noisy these decades of supposed silenced debate always were. (Cameron, perhaps prey to the myth, says in his speech: “I remember when immigration wasn’t a central political issue in our country – and I want that to be the case again.” I wonder if he could cite any five- or ten-year postwar period which he has in mind when he claims that?)

It is interesting to reflect on the drivers of the sense of political disconnection which means that this is widely believed but that is a very different thing from the myth being true.

Cameron directly echoes Michael Howard’s election posters in 2005, which proved somewhat less effective than the Conservatives hoped at the time, and which had the rather odd aim of starting a debate about immigration which will not be distracted by allegations of racism by starting a debate about racism and being silenced, rather more than to start a frank and rational public debate about immigration itself.

It was rather odd to claim that the other major party was treating all discussion of immigration as verboten – because I clearly recall that Labour had election posters in 2005 which proclaimed in bold, primary colours “Your Country’s Border’s Safe”, and it would be to rewrite history rather spectacularly to claim that Labour home secretaries such as Jack Straw or David Blunkett did not speak about immigration.

But, let’s be honest, or “frank”, as the Prime Minister likes to say: this isn’t about immigration. This is about Cameron.

As Anthony Painter notes over at LabourList:

David Cameron is in trouble. And when he’s in trouble, he panics and presses the race, identity, welfare and immigration buttons.