Not that immigration is ever really off the agenda, but there has been a flurry of activity on the topic in recent days, particularly as the Tories continue to unveil increasingly desperate and unbelievable plans to reform EU immigration. Two articles, written by Matthew Parris in the Times and British Future director Sunder Katwala in the Guardian, really struck a chord with me, particularly as they sum up two sides of an argument.
In his article, Sunder argues that Britain’s pro-migration majority could be unlocked if they could voice their concerns without being condemned as racist – particularly as to be concerned about immigration does not automatically make you a racist. He cites some forthcoming research by British Future, that I look forward to reading, that shows that while most people are concerned about immigration, they recognise the contribution that migrants make the country. He implores the anti-racists to stop being so shrill about people who air their concerns about migration, because this shuts down the debate that everyone wants to have:
“There is clear evidence that there is an anti-racist majority in Britain, not just an embattled “anti-racist minority”.
Of course, it isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long you do so without being racist.
That’s the debate people want. Anti-racists would have much to gain from that, if they stopped shouting almost as shrilly as the populist xenophobes – which only closes down the conversation that Britain’s moderate majority would like.”
I agree that the majority of British people aren’t prejudiced. But I have two problems with Sunder’s argument: false equivalence and insincerity (not from him, but in terms of these “reasonable concerns” that people have about immigration).
Yes, the anti-racists are muscular and rebut anti-migrant rhetoric robustly. Why is this? It’s not because we feel like we’re an embattled minority – but because we’re having to punch through a lot of noise. The virulently racist minority, despite their aggrieved persecution complex about how the jackboot of liberalism silenced and continues to silence their concerns about immigration, have their voices amplified and dignified by politicians and the majority of the media. They have a national platform. And while politicians bend over backwards to adopt the racists’ language and terms of reference for the immigration debate (also driving the news agenda and getting the front page headlines), they also cloak these concerns in a mantle of respectability and “common sense”. To the extent that – and here’s my second gripe with Sunder’s article – the root of their dissatisfaction, that apparently echoes everyone else’s, isn’t even interrogated.
Because, while I do think it’s not racist to be concerned about immigration, it rarely finds its expression in the “moderate” way that Sunder longs for. Too often, it hitches its caboose to the overtly racist and prejudiced minority. And that- I think, is nothing to do with anti-racist counter-narratives, and all to do with the domination of what little public space there is to debate this issue by the frames, language and misinformation of the racist minority.
However, having said that I don’t think it’s racist to be concerned about immigration, I don’t think we ever scratch beneath the surface of that. It’s uncomfortable, isn’t it, the thought that any one of us may be harbouring prejudices? We often think of racism as the flagrantly prejudiced burning crosses/graffiti’d wall/violent attack variety, instead of its more common, nervy and slightly shifty and uneasy garden variety cousin.
Matthew Parris got to the heart of that with the most honest article on immigration I’ve read all year. He starts off by imagining a conversation with one of these “moderately” disgruntled anti-immigration types, in which the person identifies (as is often the case) pressure on public services and the indigenous population missing out as a key driver of her dissatisfaction with immigration. Parris then imagines that a politician suggests that she might solve the problem by putting aside a pot of money to help local authorities overcome any challenges and plan ahead to provide the services necessary for a growing population, and to ensure that no one jumps the proverbial queue ahead of Brits (this doesn’t actually happen but that’s another story. It has become part of the anti-immigration canon now). Parris suggests that this person would probably still be unhappy, because, the truth is, the driver for their concern is fear. Fear of Other, fear of scarcity at a time of austerity, and sometimes, straight-up racism. Parris suggests this because we know from experience now that countering lies such as the one about access to services above with facts about the net contribution of migrants to Britain, and the rules for migrants with regards to benefits etc, has little to no effect.
So often I’ve seen commentators exhorting those defending migrants to drop the “dry” statistics articles and make an appeal to the heart. The truth is this – the statistics don’t work not because they’re dry but because the truth of the matter is besides the point. People are feeling a certain way and it’s not connected to reality. Parris suggests that the vast majority of people have not, in their own lives, been directly impacted by immigration, though they may worry about it on a macro level. That doesn’t mean that their feelings aren’t sincere. But just because you feel something (and I say this as a very emotional person) doesn’t make it real. Perhaps because the debate we’re actually having (on the supposed economics of it all, welfare etc) isn’t the real issue. Globalisation, insecurity, cuts to local services – we don’t discuss that.
And the fact that as the song in the deliciously mischievous musical Avenue Q goes, “Everyone’s a little bit racist” – well, at the very least we all have our prejudices – we don’t discuss that. We don’t interrogate why some of us just feel a bit bewildered by all the “difference”….on TV, in London…Britain…the 21st Century. It’s ok to feel that. But let’s be honest about how when we talk about immigration, we are often talking about a host of other things too. Things that make us feel a bit bad about ourselves. And perhaps the problem isn’t the Other, but lies a lot closer to home.