As the left chatters away about the Labour leadership contest, and the economic and diplomatic implications of a Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the real stuff of politics in Britain goes on. And there is no doubting the top issue: immigration.
Immigration has, as in many developed countries, become a lightning-rod issue for general discontent. Grumpy conservatives, especially those of lower middle class and working class standing and white origin, have decided that it is at the seat of most ills. They see a world changing around them, with middle ranking jobs disappearing, house prices and rents escalating beyond reach, public services under stress, and strange terrorist threats at home and on holiday beaches. The racist attitudes that could be taken for granted in my youth linger too, albeit in “I’m not racist but…” form. “We’re full up” is what people tell each other, and this all seems to be plain common sense. That immigration continues is simply evidence that Britain’s ruling elite is not up to the job.
Meanwhile a refugee crisis strikes Europe. The utter collapse of once-stable Syria is the most important cause. But the dire situation in Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and even Nigeria all contribute to numbers of escapees who are prepared to risk their lives in pursuit of something better. This keeps the flow of desperate people in the news, and stokes up a sense of threat. Sadly, instead of, or perhaps alongside, compassion, many people seem to think “I don’t want these people turning up in my street”. And now net migration to the UK is at record – something that has little to do with the refugee crisis, and much more to do with the relative success of the British economy. A number of right-wing newspapers are happy to keep the pot boiling, drawing connections where there aren’t any and generally playing on a sense of crisis and discontent. It is difficult not to see this as a malign intervention by media oligarchs with an agenda of their own: but this stuff clearly sells newspapers.
Mainstream politicians know full well that how firmly held these views are amongst the public at large, and feel obliged by the process of democracy to do some something. The trouble is that doing anything substantive is likely to damage other things that the public hold dear – such as the economy or public services.
Ordinarily a bit tokenism, followed by some ducking an weaving would be all that is called for. A prosperous growing economy would help distract people, and, in the classic public way, many people don’t really want to go further than have a good whinge.
But behind all this is an issue of real importance: Britain’s membership of the European Union. And behind that lurks another issue: whether or not the United Kingdom survives, or whether the kingdoms of England and Scotland go their separate ways. The government is committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2016 or 2017. Superficially things are going quite well for those that want Britain to stay in the EU. The polls that once showed solid majorities for exit have now switched the other way.
But Britain’s exit campaigners are a determined bunch. For many it is the most important issue in current politics; for them there is no ill that does not have Britain’s membership of the EU at its heart. It plays the same role as Communism did in my youth: something that provides unity and coherence to an otherwise disparate movement. Large parts of the Conservative Party think this way, perhaps most of its grassroots membership; and they are being harried by the insurgent Ukip. They know that support for the EU is lukewarm, and there is one issue that could turn it: immigration.
Free movement of people lies at the heart of the EU treaties, something that many Britons have taken advantage of with alacrity. Not that that affects the public debate: Britons abroad are benign “expats”, while those coming to this country from other places are malign “migrants”. Many other EU citizens are as sceptical about free movement as Britons are, but securing a treaty change, even if desirable, is not feasible in the next two years. Treaty changes require ratification by all member states, a process that often requires a referendum. Each treaty change has become more difficult than the last; there is now no prospect of securing this. And without treaty change the main features of free movement will remain in place – something that is thoroughly good for the EU economies, including Britain’s, but of no help to those who want to present a “reformed” EU to the electorate.
And so the antis are keeping immigration up on the agenda. The refugee crisis helps: even though this has no bearing on Britain’s membership question, it serves to raise public unease. And slowly but surely the anti-EU campaigners are drawing a connection between EU membership and high immigration. The most conspicuous recent example came from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, no less. She suggested that EU migration be limited to those already with jobs to move too. This is half-baked, but that’s not the point. It is something an EU renegotiation cannot deliver, and this will help stoke discontent.
But leaving the EU would be a disaster for Britain. It would mire the country’s political leadership in many years of painful negotiation, and would give the Scottish independence movement a sound reason to rerun the independence referendum, and an excellent reason for Scots voters to vote for independence. Regardless of whether the Britain would be better off or not outside the EU in the long run, years of negotiation and uncertainty will damage investment, and no doubt slow down other areas of economic and political reform.
So what to do? Moderate Conservatives, led by the Prime Minister David Cameron, are trying to accommodate the anti-immigration movement, both in tightening rules, and in negotiations with the EU. This simply looks ineffectual – as well as damaging as the country’s demographic crisis slowly begins to bight, as well as the need for the country’s education sector to bring in foreign, fee-paying customers.
Labour have tried to find a middle ground too; this is an issue that bothers its working class core vote, now being picked off by Ukip. It has declared that its laissez-faire approach in the 2000s was a mistake. But it wasn’t, and this is intellectually dishonest. Amid such contortions it is difficult to sound convincing.
Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, also tried to stake a middle ground. He wanted to combine clear and well-enforced rules on migration with a generally liberal attitude. The public wasn’t listening, though, and it sounded too much like liberal fence-sitting.
Which leaves liberals, left and right, in a bit of a bind. For now standing up for the principles of free movement and diversity is the only honest thing to do. But alongside the fictional problems that flow from this are quite a few genuine ones, that need real solutions. And anti-immigrant feeling is a sign of a deeper discontent, which liberals must address.
I think it has a lot to do with the hollowing out of society, as big institutions, from public ones like the NHS, to national commercial chains, take control. This provides the sort of rootless milieu in which outsiders seem much more of a threat to people’s security. It allows organisations that thrive on cheap, disempowered labour, often recruited abroad, to thrive.
But reversing that trend is a huge task. it means looking again at the standard language of economic growth and productivity. It is a cause that this blogger is increasingly devoting himself to.