Retreat and Reframe

Although we’re only 12 days into the year, the immigration rhetoric has been coming thick and fast. But something that I’ve mentioned before is the reframing of almost every other issue that touches people’s lives in terms of immigration. So, rather than discuss the effect of cuts and privatisation on the NHS, politicians discuss benefit tourism. Instead of a jobs plan for unemployed young people, we hear about closing loopholes for foreign workers. I was blown away to see the usually wise and measured Polly Toynbee making the case for the living wage as a way to curb immigration.

With the exception of benefit tourism, which is being over-hyped for political gain, many of the other measures, such as a the living wage, are good in and of themselves, as a matter of social and economic justice. But immigration is the primary lens through which everything is being seen at the moment. This may give politicians an emotional lever to pull, but it’s a toxic strategy. With perceptions on immigration out of step with reality, this just validates everyone’s misperceptions and makes it even more likely that we will see more policy solutions in search of problems.

Something else I’ve noticed is how critics of immigration, such as Nigel Farage, are increasingly dismissing economic arguments as cold, dry figures in favour of a discussion on the social effects of immigration. I think this is partly because most of the economic data shows that immigration is on balance a benefit to the UK. But I also think it’s because it’s easier to debate the nebulous concepts of integration and assimilation. I do think it must be discussed and it is an issue, but I don’t think it’s either/or. And, while I do agree with blogger Sunny Hundal that it’s an argument that we can win,  I disagree with the reasons why he supports a shift in emphasis.

As I’ve blogged before, British Future found that the issue of integration is a vexed one, with the “laundry list” for migrants from often idealised version of who we want to be:

“It can be difficult for migrant voices to be heard whenever the integration debate becomes framed as a question of “them and us” – especially ‘why can’t they be like us?’ – rather than the two-way street of how we work together to make the new “us” work.”

 I think it’s pointless to discuss the social impact of immigration without looking at other (often economic) factors – in the form of decisions about spending – on housing, schools, hospitals because  pressure on these resources contribute to community tensions, with immigrants all too often the lightning rods for frustration at lack of resources. 

And finally, there’s the subtle rehabilitation of Enoch Powell; Nigel Farage agreed with excerpts of his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech when presented with some of it on Sky News. Hugo Rifkind of the Times wrote a blisteringly excellent column on this, and putting Powell’s speech in historical context and warning that “If Britain wants to debate immigration, the Rivers of Blood speech is emphatically not the place to start.”

I will go into this further in another blog post, but I think part of the resurgence of interest in what should be an entirely discredited speech is because along with the oft-repeated clarion call that critics of immigration have been silenced by the establishment thus far comes the accusation that this is because all too often, race and immigration have been linked. Well, we may be living in a brave, new world but the bad news is: Powell’s speech was racist then and it’s racist now. And while to be against immigration is not racist, the way in which this opposition is expressed sometimes is. That’s why having “Go Home” emblazoned on the side of vans last summer was never a polite suggestion but the co-opting of a nasty, racist far-right slogan that offended and wounded so many ethnic minorities.

And, yes, we may be talking chiefly about Romanians and Bulgarians at the moment, who are white, but the stereotyping and othering of the Roma people has historical roots and is – yes, I’m going to call it – racist.

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