On Wednesday 28th of April, the (then?) Prime Minister committed a god-awful blunder; the first god-awful blunder of the 2010 election.
While out campaigning in Rochdale, Gordon Brown was confronted by a pensioner called Gillian Duffy. This woman, who had voted Labour all of her life, proceeded to voice her concerns on a wide range of issues to the (then?) Prime Minister. One of these issues was immigration.
Gordon Brown dealt with Ms Duffy’s questions amicably, even asking after her grandchildren before leaving her and entering into his car. Once in his car, however, and not aware that he was still connected to a microphone, Gordon Brown expressed his uncensored analysis of this meeting. He called the whole episode a ‘disaster’ and, even more damagingly, referred to Ms Duffy as a ‘bigoted woman’.
For Gordon Brown, this incident certainly was a ‘disaster’. It may have obliterated Labour’s, already slim, chances of winning the General Election. On the other hand, It may not have. There are at least two things, however, that Gordon Brown’s reference to this elderly woman as ‘bigoted’ definitely has done.
First, it lends support to the idea that politicians are disingenuous and duplicitous. They say one thing in public – usually an untruth or misrepresentation intended to portray them in a certain, favourable light – and another thing in private – the harsh and uncomfortable facts of what they really think.
Second, and I think more important, it shows that Gordon Brown is out of touch with the priorities and opinions of many, perhaps even the majority of, British voters. For these people, immigration is an extremely important issue and for the Prime Minister of Great Britain to dismiss their concerns as ‘bigoted’ is an insult.
Now, Gordon Brown is not unique in his handling of the immigration issue. Much of the British political establishment and liberal elite – and, I think, many of us, typically liberal minded, students – respond to any mention of the ‘I’ word with discomfort and paranoia. The presumption is that anyone who expresses concerns about immigration must be either a racist or a bigot.
Immigration is, then, a taboo subject.
This is, of course, due to the fact that historically much of the opposition to immigration has been underpinned by racist, or at least xenophobic, thinking. This fact has led to any talk of limits to immigration being associated with racism.
Because the immigration debate has been so tainted by its association with racism and bigotry, many politicians of recent times have chosen to tip-toe around the issue, instead of addressing it in anything like a reasonable or clear-headed way.
This failure on the part of mainstream politicians to talk sensibly and seriously about immigration has informed the apparent increase in support for political parties of the far-right.
Parties like the BNP, exploit the vacuum left by the mainstream parties’ failure to adequately address the issue. They play on the, perhaps initially legitimate, concerns of ordinary people – concerns that have been allowed to fester and become entrenched. These parties point to the lack of social housing, or levels of unemployment, or strains in public services and blame these problems on the levels of immigration. But in doing so, they also point to the otherness of the immigrant, the peculiarity of their alien culture, and the fact that they are not indigenous. In this way they tie the issue of immigration to race and ethnicity. Thus, parties of the far-right feed off the festering and unattended to concerns of ordinary people and channel these concerns through the prism of race.
Indeed, far-right parties like the BNP actually rely on the intermingling of race and immigration that the mainstream political elite is so scared of. It is precisely because parties such as the BNP have notions of nationality and citizenship that are built upon constructs of race and indigenousness that they conceive of immigration in such a racialised way.
Immigration need not be a controversial, essentially racialised issue.
Indeed, I think that it could be a fairly boring issue. However, by refusing to unpick issues of race from concerns about immigration, the political establishment has allowed those with racial or ethnic notions of nationality to exploit the possible link between the two and, therefore, argue for limits to immigration on racial grounds.
In order to de-racialise the immigration debate, two things need to be done. First, people’s legitimate concerns about immigration – about housing, employment and public services – need to be addressed and it needs to be shown that these concerns can be addressed without reference to the race of immigrants. Second, there needs to be an argument about what exactly is wrong with a racial understanding of nationality and citizenship.
The first if these tasks would involve weighing-up the pros and cons of immigration at any particular time. The skill shortages in the country compared with the skill levels of the immigrants, the availability of housing, the capacity of public services, and so-on. These are fairly technical (some might say boring) issues.
The second of these two tasks involves having an argument – and it is an argument that many people seem to be refusing to have.
It involves highlighting exactly what is wrong with a racialised understanding of nationality and immigration. It involves actually recognising the fact that some people are sympathetic to the views expressed by parties like the BNP. In fact, it involves recognising that, believe it or not, some people are actually racist.
The way in which we currently approach the issue of racism and racial understandings of nationality implies that the people who hold these views don’t actually believe them to be true. We behave as if simply asserting that these views are dangerous or unpalatable, or simply denying their existence, will suffice as means to defeat them.
This is a curious way to approach a position that another person or group of people believe to be true. If you thought that creationism or scientology, or Keynesianism or catholicism was incorrect, you would not, or should not, simply demand that it be ‘bashed’ or ‘beaten’ or deny that the viewpoint even exists. You would present an argument that stated why exactly it is incorrect or why exactly the view that you are proposing is better.
This is not the way that the racial concept of nationality propounded by the BNP is ever addressed. The BNP’s actual philosophy – they do have a philosophy – is rarely given attention and shown for the nonsense that it is. Instead, we are told that the BNP is a racist organisation and reminded how scary that this fact is.
This fact, on its own, is not a sufficient response to the existence of the BNP. Whether or not it is a racist organisation with a racial understanding of nationality, the point is that some people actually believe its philosophy or at least sympathise with some of its sentiments. Presumably we want these people to realise their error and change their minds. This can be only achieved through argument.
Even if these two tasks can be achieved, there is a more fundamental issues that lies at the core of the immigration debate: The right of a country to restrict the movement of an individual through its borders.
It is taken for granted that all countries are entitled to prohibit entry to individuals – even sometimes forcibly. This justification for this entitlement is not clear, especially given the fact that it is in such conflict with the right of all individuals to freedom of movement.
Within a country we would think it unacceptable to restrict the freedom of individuals to move across the borders of counties, states, or regions. What magic happens at the national border to make our judgement different?