Notes From the Margins…

Immigration: Stop Pandering

  • February 02, 2019
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If there is one thing British politicians always seem able to agree on, it’s that they must respond to public concerns about immigration.

Rarely, if ever, do the politicians who seek to placate these concerns consider their validity.  Is it true that Romanians and Bulgarians are all poor and therefore likely to be criminals – an argument frequently made before restrictions on the A2 countries were lifted in 2014?

Do immigrants really ‘undercut’ British workers, lowering their wages or taking away ‘our’ jobs?  How widespread is this?   Is immigration ‘out of control’?

Are we really being flooded by ‘mass immigration?’ Is it true that immigrants deliberately come over here in order to take our benefits or use the NHS?  Are EU citizens ‘jumping the queue?’ Is it true that  immigrants ‘won’t integrate’?

Don’t expect our politicians to ask such questions – at least not in public.  For many of them, even to begin to do this would be to run the risk of appearing ‘soft on immigration’ – an unpardonable political folly and a possible vote loser.

If the public is concerned about immigration, our politicians seem to assume that it’s up to them to placate these concerns rather than assess whether they are a matter of perception or reality.

This response tends to take similar forms: punitive restrictions and tightened borders; ‘toughness’ on immigration;  renewed attempts to demonstrate ‘control’ or at least to be seen to do so; aggressively assimilationist rhetoric that demands that immigrants integrate or leave; detention centres; azure cards; removals and deportations on any pretext; ‘hostile environments’ that end up depriving immigrants of cancer treatment.   

This is what our politicians do, and it seems they just can’t stop.

Tory governments have always done this – it’s a badge of honour for them.  But New Labour did the same, bragging about its toughness while it presided over high levels of immigration from the Accession 8 countries.  Ed Miliband did it with his pathetic ‘immigration control’ mugs.

None of it ever worked.  No matter what governments did, those ‘concerns’ kept coming – fed by a viciously xenophobic pro-Tory press that even the United Nations condemned for its ‘hate speech’ and ‘anti-foreigner abuse’.

Without these concerns it’s difficult to believe that Brexit would ever have happened.

I know people – on the left and right – like to believe that Brexit was some cry of the dispossessed, a kick in the face against the ‘elite’, which it was in part.

But take away immigration and the Brexit anti-establishment soup is pretty thin gruel.  Even ‘sovereignty’ tends to come down to the desire for ‘strong borders’ and the ability to kick people out

Why did May herald the end of freedom of movement as the great achievement of her miserable deal?  Because she knew her audience – or at least the audience she wanted to play to.

Last week we saw again that she isn’t the only one who is willing to play to this audience.

Take Labour’s shambling response to the vote on the government’s Immigration and Social Security Bill (EU Withdrawal) Bill, which lays out UK immigration policy post-Brexit.

Among other things, the bill ended freedom of movement, and laid the basis for placing EU nationals under UK immigration law post-Brexit – with reduced rights under the ‘settled status’ provision that they can apply for through an Android phone app.

What does that mean in practice?  Well it often means things like this:


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And this:


This is not just a technical issue.  As we know from Windrush and much else, it’s what the Home Office does, because politicians tell it to behave like this in order to stop the public from feeling so ‘concerned.’

So how did Labour respond to the bill on Monday?  First it announced it was going to abstain – thereby granting the bill a walk through.  In the morning Home Secretary Diane Abbott told the House of Commons:

The Labour party is clear that when Britain leaves the single market, freedom of movement ends, and we set this out in our 2017 manifesto. I am a slavish devotee of that magnificent document: so on that basis, the frontbench of the Labour party will not be opposing this bill this evening,

Faced with criticism on social media from MPs and members of its own party, the Corbyn team then announced in the early evening that the opposition would be voting against the bill after all, but only on a one-line whip.

By the time the vote came up, only 178 our of 256 Labour MPs were present, and – who would have thought? – the bill passed by 297 to 234 votes.

All of which is a shameful embarrassment.  In effect the ‘new’ Labour Party is behaving pretty much like its predecessors – failing to challenge unwarranted ‘concerns and abandoning the people who are the victims of these concerns.

And they aren’t the only ones.  This week Gina Miller launched her new ‘Lead not Leave’ campaign, in tandem with Helena Kennedy and ahem, Charles Saatchi.

Among other things Miller claimed that her initiative ‘will honour the demand for change that the 2016 vote represented, and give us back control of issues such as immigration.’

The suggestion that Remain is a better way to address the loss of control over immigration than Leave does not even question whether we had really ‘lost control’ – or the assumptions of flooding and invasion by parasitical foreigners that are part of that narrative.

It’s just as dishonourable as Labour’s refusal to defend freedom of movement – even though it comes from a different political position.

Politicians can never win these arguments.  Every time they concede ground to concerns that are often based on misinformation, xenophobia and outright racism – they lose ground.

Decades of this have got us into the mess we’re in.  What we need now is something new: politicians with the courage and vision to stand with migrants and stand up for the UK as a country of migration.

And until we find them, we are going be trapped by those concerns for a very long time – if they don’t destroy us first.


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  1. #Brexit #MIGRATION & #UK #POLITICS: #Immigration: Stop Pandering! | | truthaholics

    3rd Feb 2019 - 2:59 am

    […] Immigration: Stop Pandering |  Matt Carr’s Infernal Machine | Notes From the Margins… | 2 FEBRUARY 2019 […]

  2. Richard Carter

    3rd Feb 2019 - 10:09 am

    Interestingly, Barbara Ellen (not someone I normally read with any interest) writes today about this very issue, quoting approvingly the speech by Jess Philips in the HoC in favour of immigration. A cut above the usual MPs’ responses!

    • Matt

      4th Feb 2019 - 3:42 pm

      I agree. Much better speech than you would normally expect on this subject

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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