The Silence that Screams its name

“Language matters. Witness the disturbing stereotyping of Roma people. But there are also dangers in silencing debate. Branding people as racist when they questioned the benefits of mass immigration crushed open debate very effectively until Gordon Brown derided Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”. People listened to his sneering comments from the back of his limousine and something snapped.” – Sarah Woollaston

At some point, we’re constantly told, those with reservations about immigration were silenced. The jack boot of liberal oppression ground them into the dust, but they are now emerging blinking into the light of day, taking deep gulps of air and haltingly speaking The Truth, which has gone unspoken until very recently.

The Truth being, of course, that immigration is bad for British culture. The NHS. Housing. Social Cohesion. Etc. (It varies but the main thrust is that the economic data on migration is not enough – there is something intangible and British being lost.) I do agree that economic data is not the only thing to take into consideration, but as Kenan Malik points out, the social science on the effects of diversity and how people feel about it offers a snapshot in time. It’s also not the final word.

“The existential fear of immigration is almost as old as immigration itself. Had Arthur Balfour been able to read Goodhart’s account of the creation of an England ‘full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’, of an England that ‘is not English any more’, he would undoubtedly have nodded in agreement. Balfour was the Prime Minister in 1905 when Britain introduced its first immigration controls, aimed primarily at European Jews. Without such a law, Balfour claimed, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ Two years earlier, the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration (an ‘alien’ was, in the early twentieth century, both a description of a foreigner and a euphemism for a Jew) had expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.” – Kenan Malik

As far as I can see, those opposed to immigration have never been stopped from airing their views. But quite rightly, critics have drawn attention to the way in which those views are expressed, and the impact of a majority rounding on a minority, who are all too often stereotyped and miscast as the symbol for unrelated social ills. People are confusing criticism with silencing. Your view may be contested, but as far as I can see, when you have Blunkett on the BBC warning of race riots in Sheffield because of the Roma and Nick Clegg chiming in with the accusation that Roma culture can be offensive, I don’t think your problem is being heard. In fact, I don’t think the Roma community, maligned and stereotyped in the national press by politicians with a bully pulpit, can muster the same resources in response.

Undoubtedly, when the economy was good (granted, for some, not all) some voices were less audible – but I don’t think that was down to pro-immigration forces so much as poverty. The working classes were marginalised and in many ways continue to be. They were and are failed by a political elite who have found it quite useful to deflect criticism for not building houses, schools or hospitals, (even before the effects of  immigration are factored in) by capitalising on fear of the “other”. These are the same elites who would rather subsidise underemployment with tax credits and then demonise those who claim them rather than ensure that work pays and everyone earns a living wage. Not one conviction has been brought under minimum wage legislation since its inception. The dividing line is not between local and foreigner, but between rich and poor, a point made excellently by Zoe Williams in the Guardian:

“The same rhetoric that divides “migrants” from “citizens” also divides “citizens” and “taxpayers”, in a sort of child-parent dichotomy (the citizen has rights, the taxpayer pays for them).” – Zoe Williams

When it comes to politicians scrambling to leap on the anti-migrant bandwagon, silence is not the first word that springs to mind.

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