In their desperation to win the upcoming Rochester by-election, the Tories have become increasingly toxic and divisive on the EU and immigration.
- David Cameron kicked things off on Friday in one of his displays of red-faced fury and angry lectern bashing, howling that a €2.1bn surcharge for the UK was “unjustified” (even as it emerged that British officials played a role in endorsing the calculations). Within a couple of days, the few allies he had fled from him.
- Then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon claimed last Sunday that towns are being “swamped” by migrants and their residents are “under siege”, quickly followed by disarray as No.10 forced him to dilute “swamped” to “under pressure”.
- And, just as we thought the Nasty Party couldn’t get any worse, the government pulled the plug on supporting EU search and rescue missions to prevent migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, on the ground these missions “encourage more people to attempt to make the dangerous sea crossing”.
Fallon’s red meat description of English towns being “swamped” while “under siege” will go down well with some. As Stuart Jeffries reminded us on Tuesday, such figures of speech have often played well with “those sympathetic to politicians’ racist speeches”, from Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” to Godfrey Bloom’s “bongo-bongo land”.
Writing in the Daily Mail, former Labour home secretary David Blunkett admitted using the term “swamped” in the same way as Fallon when addressing immigration 12 years ago (although he did not indicate whether his “swamped” towns have been completely submerged in the interim). Apparently not having listened to the news for some time, he went on to suggest that: “Just because immigration is deeply controversial, that cannot mean we should avoid talking about it”.
Blunkett should have taken his cue from his party’s leader, Ed Miliband, who stayed clear of inflammatory language on immigration while on the campaign trail in Rochester in favour of “clear, credible and concrete” measures to deal with the concerns of voters.
Confusing the issues
The fact is that EU freedom of movement has become entrapped in mythology and conflated with immigration, asylum seeking, race relations and outright racism and Islamophobia.
To demonstrate how it can muddle together these different issues: the Daily Mail (which, as we know, does not do nuance) accused Miliband of ‘total cynicism’ in making “sharply contrasting speeches on immigration and race equality in just seven hours”.
But why should a speech on immigration be the same as one on racial equality? A quote from Tory MP Peter Bone sheds no light on the matter: “No one will object to cracking down on racial inequality. But it is totally cynical to say one thing to one audience and something else a few hours later to another.”
Moreover, there is little to justify wild claims of negative impacts from immigration, such as too many EU citizens coming here, the benefits system being abused and wages being forced down. In Immigration: Could we – should we – stop migrants coming to Britain?, immigration expert Jonathan Portes finds the impact on jobs and wages to be negligible “compared to other factors such as technological change, employers’ increasing demand for skilled workers and the positive impact of the national minimum wage”.
His findings for the UK are similar to those addressed in Ten myths about migration, in which writers from some major newspapers in European capitals look at the issues from a European-wide perspective and find (gasp) immigrants are not all criminals, taking our jobs and depleting welfare budgets. Quite the reverse, in fact.