My first thought when watching Nick Robinson’s much-vaunted programme, The Truth About Immigration, at the start of the month was: “Well, it could have been worse” – which is more of a reflection of the tenor of the immigration debate at the moment than the programme.
Much of it was predictable. At one point, he interviewed the former head of the Equality Commission, Trevor Philips, who agreed with Robinson that the discussion of immigration is now separated from race. That set off an alarm in my head that continued to niggle at me until the end, when with a self-satisfied, almost triumphant air, he declared that the immigration discussion is “a debate that’s hardly been had.”
Robinson touched on two arguments that I’ve seen more since, and which are interconnected.
1. We are now finally having the immigration debate
2. Because, finally, the immigrations debate is decoupled from race, especially as we are now speaking in the context of a debate about European migration from Eastern Europe.
Collier has also made this argument. My questions is, when was this silence? The debate has been raging since before the first immigration controls were enacted, and many of the same arguments we see today about the changing nature of the country have been made for decades against one group or another.
However, immigration under the Labour government did coincide with greater anxiety about globalisation, a change that I don’t think was really explained to people – nor were their concerns really listened to. In the rush to “listen” to people over immigration now, it’s interesting to note that this is the only issue on which the political class is willing to really interact with the public. Food banks? Monster the Trussell Trust. Bedroom tax? Deny, deny, deny. The government is willing to fudge statistics, suppress reports (like the politically inconvenient one that found immigration a net benefit to the country) and just ignore the pressures put on the NHS, housing and other areas – but on immigration? They scramble to look responsive to people’s perceptions, even if they are misinformed.
But, onto the second part of this argument – that race and immigration are now decoupled from one another, and in this post-racial environment we can now have this debate at last. Not true. The fact that racial abuse in schools is up 69% as a result of this rhetoric shows that there is a racial element to this debate. The “Go Home” van electrified people precisely because that language is not a harmless suggestion, but a phrase that the far right has used against migrants (and settled citizens who are ethnic minorities) in this country for decades.
To debate immigration is not racist. But if you co-opt the language of racists and use it to pander to racism in the general public (real or perceived) then yes, that is racist.
What I see happening now is not the decoupling of race and immigration, but a collapse of the wall between mainstream and far-right discourse and the subtle rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. The consequences for community relations are real. We can see them in the playground and hear them “from the mouths of babes.”