It can be safely said that 2013 was not a year in which the British political class covered itself in glory as far as the great immigration ‘debate’ is concerned.
On the contrary, in the last twelve months Britain’s politicians – with the support of some the most unscrupulous and dishonest newspapers in the western world – have gone to extraordinary lengths to legitimize and pander to the worst instincts and prejudices of the population, and have been collectively complicit in the demonization and victimization of immigrants per se, and certain categories of migrants in particular.
The catalyst for this transformation has been the rise of Ukip, which has galvanized the Tory party into a spate of increasingly cruel, punitive and inhuman measures aimed at ‘illegal’ and ‘legal’ immigrants in an attempt to demonstrate its ‘toughness’ on immigration.
These ‘demonstrations’ include the Home Office’s ‘go home or face arrest’ campaign; the stepped-up deportations that resulted in the grotesque decision to remove a half-blind and dying hunger striker Isa Muazu; new laws restricting access to benefits and NHS treatment; and the government’s atrocious Immigration Bill; and a constant stream of threats, warnings and promises which depict immigrants as parasitical intruders and usurpers of national privilege.
Much of the year has been dominated by an entirely manufactured panic about a potential mass influx of immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria intent on living a life on benefits. Not a single shred of credible evidence has ever been provided to support these predictions.
But facts have been generally irrelevant to a media and political class that increasingly prefers to inhabit the lower reaches of xenophobic and racist prejudice, in its cruel and frequently ridiculous attempts to ‘protect’ its borders from an imaginary immigrant invasion.
We are, after all, talking about a country that has kept some 18,000 families permanently separated because of its draconian family reunion laws that oblige non-British spouses to earn more than £18, 500 before they can enter the country.
In October for example, the British consulate in Algeria refused to allow the 81-year-old Sid-Ahmed Kerzabi, one of the most distinguished Algerian scholars, to attend a workshop in Oxford, because there was ‘insufficient proof that he was not planning to settle in Britain.’
This is what our increasingly depraved immigration ‘debate’ has done. In pursuit of votes, politicians have colluded with a process that has turned us into a mean-spirited, paranoid and xenophobic nation whose immigration policies are not only cruel but ridiculous that other countries and institutions are beginning to contemplate which shock and amazement.
Primary responsibility for this state of affairs goes to the Tory government – ably supported by the Liberal Democrats despite their more recent attempts to distance themselves from the opportunism of Lord Snooty and His Pals.
In the last month the European Union Commissioner Lazslo Andor has accused the government of ‘legitimizing xenophobia’ through its ‘rhetoric’ on immigration.
Both the Romanian and Bulgarian ambassadors have also understandably questioned the depictions of their populations as criminal parasites. On Boxing Day the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR), which normally tends to err towards diplomacy and caution in its criticisms of governments, expressed its concern that the Coalition’s new Immigration Bill could lead to the stigmatization, discrimination and ‘ethnic profiling’ of refugees and asylum seekers.
These criticisms produced the predictable spittle-flecked John Bullish indignation from Tory backbenchers about unelected UN and international (translation: ‘foreign’) – bureaucrats trying to stop a ‘sovereign’ country from defending its borders.
All that is to be expected, from a party that has always been willing to pick up the dog whistle even in good political times, and positively blows on it till its cheeks are red when things go bad.
But Labour has done almost nothing to challenge the essential assumptions that underpin the anti-immigration lobby. It supports the Immigration Bill and its criticisms of Coalition immigration policy have generally been of the ‘we-can-do-it-better’ type.
So it was no surprise to find Shadow Education Minister Tristam Hunt, poking his head up during the liminal zone between Christmas and New Year, to give another turn of the screw by alleging that the educational prospects of ‘white boys’ were being harmed by – you guessed it – ‘high recent migration.’
Hunt’s suggestion that ‘ British white boys are not getting the education they want’ was originally published in a Fabian Society interview and gleefully reproduced by that well-known bastion of Labourism the Daily Telegraph.
Hunt was apparently referring to ‘boys in suburban coastal districts’ with high levels of Eastern European migration. He didn’t say how such migration was affecting ‘white’ British boys, nor did he say why only ‘white’ boys are affected. In fact he didn’t say much at all. Asked whether he supported restrictions on EU immigration, curbs on migrant benefits or NHS treatment, Hunt took the fifth and chose to ‘swerve’ these questions.
But no matter, because the dogs were duly summoned. The Telegraph was able to tell its readers that ” White boys’ under-achievement linked to mass migration” and that ‘ Tristam Hunt links underachievement by white boys to Eastern European migration.’
In the midst of this sordid clutching after votes there was some irony in the fact that Nigel Farage, the cynical contender who has done so much to make this competition possible, could be heard last weekend suggesting that the UK should honor the Geneva Refugee Convention and allow Syrian refugees in Britain.
Before many observers had finished choking on their champagne, Farage qualified this the following day by explaining that he only meant (some) Christian Syrians, not Muslims.
Now that’s a politician with a big heart. But we are unlikely to hear much more of this in the months to come, as Ukip looks to ride on a sea of fear and loathing and general public disgust with politicians to make big gains in the European elections, and Labour and the Conservatives seek to narrow the very slim lead that separates them by turning immigration into a major issue in the 2015 elections.
And in the meantime, it now looks – surprise, surprise – as though the invasion that everyone predicted for the last twelve months may not happen, and that most Bulgarians and Romanians are looking elsewhere in Europe for work.
This would not have surprised the great Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavavy. In the closing verses of his great poem Waiting for the Barbarians, his anonymous narrator describes the perplexed and disappointed crowds leaving the Roman forum ‘ because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come/And some who have just returned from the border say there are no barbarians any longer.’
‘And now, what”s going to happen to us without barbarians?’ asks one of the crowd, ‘They were, those people, a kind of solution.’
Indeed they were, and in 21st century Britain, they still are. And if the Romanians and Bulgarians don’t come, you can be sure our leaders will try and find someone else to take their place.