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17 January 2024

Tory divisions over Rwanda reflect the wider anti-migrant mood across Europe

As far-right parties surge on the continent, Britain’s staunch multiculturalism is starting to look a little lonely.

By Andrew Marr

A parliamentary week dominated by the Rwanda Bill must be, in modern Britain, a week of euphemism and verbal cowardice. Not to mention Tory in-fighting: on 16 January, Lee Anderson and Brendan Clarke-Smith resigned their positions as deputy Conservative chairmen in order to vote for supposedly Red Wall-pleasing rebel amendments that toughen Rishi Sunak’s plan. But behind all immigration debates lies an atavistic fear among some of the electorate. How often, amid talk of control, legality and “sheer numbers”, do we hear anyone addressing race?

Like any person of respectable views, I hesitate to even write the word race, not least because it is a scientifically meaningless term, historically weaponised by those who loathe people of different ethnic origin. But skin colour underlies much hostility to immigration. We know this. On the centre left we are mostly too scared to talk about it. We ought to.

First, let’s acknowledge that this is a European issue of the 2020s. Across the continent, parties of the hard right are marching. Mostly there’s a desperate desire to deflect, to say this has nothing to do with hatred of the other, that it’s “really” about hard times for farmers, or rising street crime, or elite corruption. Let us talk about – oh, anything else.

But meanwhile, leaders of the German right-wing party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) meet neo-Nazis in secret outside Berlin to discuss a forced “remigration” of unassimilated immigrants to a “new model state” in North Africa.

But meanwhile, the Dutch Party for Freedom wins 37 parliamentary seats in November’s election. Its leader, Geert Wilders, who campaigns against the “Islamisation of the Netherlands”, compares the Koran to Mein Kampf and wants it banned, along with the construction of new mosques. But meanwhile, two defeated former French presidents, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, come together to warn about the steady advance of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, telling Le Monde that their country is living through its “worst democratic crisis” since the 1930s.

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And then there’s Giorgia Meloni’s “post-fascist” Brothers of Italy, the Vlaams Belang party in Belgium, Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Vox in Spain, the “Sweden Democrats”, Portugal’s Islamophobic Chega. And we are only getting going. I know there are plenty of examples of more centrist politics fighting back successfully; and that conditions are different everywhere. But can anyone credibly claim that this political wave sweeping over the continent has nothing to do with “race”?

It’s important for us this week to spot a deep post-Brexit irony. In Britain, many Remainers thought that staying in the EU offered a soft corporate guarantee against British xenophobia, while many Leavers thought that a Britain outside the EU would be, by definition, a whiter Britain.

Instead, with Trump marching ahead in the Republican primaries, using language about blood contamination and mass deportation that is straight from the 1930s, British multiculturalism is beginning to look a little lonely. With a white population of around 80 per cent, we are not the most immigrant-heavy society in Europe; both France and Germany have higher foreign-born proportions of citizens. Research by Queen’s University Belfast based on the 2021 census figures showed Britain to be more ethnically diverse than ever but, crucially, less segregated too.

Brexit, far from closing the borders, has opened Britain to the absolute need for trade deals with countries in Asia and Africa that often demand visas in return. Forget, for a moment, the economic impact on medium-sized trading companies struggling with EU markets. When Brexiteer ultras fully comprehend that their policy makes Britain less white (if also, say, less Polish), it may be the final nail in the coffin of that particular experimental philosophy.

We have our backlash too, from the former home secretary Suella Braverman’s bleak assertion that multiculturalism has failed, to the leader of the Reform UK party, Richard Tice, saying much the same. He also inveighs against the UK’s electoral system as being one reason why we have no Vox or “Alternative for Britain” represented at Westminster.

The other reason such parties do not advance, of course, is the historical ability of the Conservatives to mop up anti-immigrant sentiment. By making policy manoeuvres of a kind pushed by further-right parties on the continent, plus a few courageous confrontations, the Tories asphyxiated their challengers in previous decades: the Empire Loyalists in the 1950s, then Powellism, and then the National Front, and, until recently, Ukip.

Taking the long view, the recent Commons positioning on “stop the boats” is merely the latest phase of establishment “handling” of anti-migrant insurgency. But because of the argument inside the Tory party about the legal acceptability of the Rwanda policy, and because so many people are turning their backs on the Tories for other reasons, this uniquely British form of national accommodation may now be coming to an end.

So where does this leave the centre left when it comes to ethnicity in British politics? First, stay calm. Multiculturalism is so much a done deal here, an established social change, that it would be almost impossible for any political party, however angry, to unwind without utter chaos.

But the second thing is to be realistically humble about the potency of politics. I used to think that the state was a major player in reshaping people’s thinking; I now understand that it is far too incompetent, too remote, too distrusted, to change views in any direction. The most actively diversifying parts of modern Britain are the private sector companies, hiring and selling themselves from and to everyone. If you want to see “woke” at full throttle, don’t watch the Liberal Democrats or the Labour left, look to the big corporates, the advertising agencies, even the banks.

Why? Because, like universities or hospitals, they are uninterested in civic culture in the abstract: they are merely dealing with customers and employees and they are in a constant struggle for both. This need to be commercially realistic about modern Britain is far more powerful than the rhetoric of any politician. We don’t talk about it much, but it moves among us every day.

It also digs into the culture. If you ask yourself why so many TV series star black and Asian actors, or why West End theatres use “diverse” casts, Occam’s razor tells you it’s less likely to be because of some obscure web of liberal conspiracy; rather that it’s what advertisers and market-conscious producers insist upon. Look around the world. Capitalism is the most effective integration machine ever invented. And if the Tory right want to go to war on this issue, that’s what they will find, and that’s why they will lose.

Does this mean that we should relax about the politics of “race” washing around us? No. But we should see it for what it is: a metaphor for difference and change, which means we should focus on culture and values. For instance, I find myself to be instinctively liberal on abortion, women’s rights, sexuality and the right to die. My quarrel is therefore likely to be with mainstream religions, including Islam, but also Catholicism and Pentecostalism.

A Britain that is liberal on issues of personal choice will be a Britain in which religious communities are themselves respectful of others, in which “traditional British values” of mutual tolerance and personal reticence, as well as occasional bloody-minded protest, are dominant. Now, this is a delicate recipe that can be curdled by malign actors or by too-swift change.

It can never be taken for granted. Good government must hold the ring. It should not concern itself with grand projects to reshape our civilisation. We are doing that – thank you very much – for ourselves.  

[See also: Labour’s biggest threat is an electorate that has given up]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge