Here’s a test: an imaginary exchange between a prime minister and a voter. Tell me the point (if such a moment comes) when it doesn’t ring true for you.
PM: Now, sir: what would you say is your biggest concern for our country?
VOTER: Immigration from Eastern Europe.
PM: How do you think it harms us?
VOTER: Parts of Britain are being swamped. In some places our schools and social services just can’t cope. The indigenous population are being elbowed aside for housing, hospital treatment and things like that.
PM: Yes, I know this bothers people. But we could fix it. We could earmark whatever government money was needed, so that wherever immigrants were placing a big strain on public services, funds would be allocated for the authorities to cope. If you believed we’d do this, would it solve the problem for you?
VOTER: Oh yes; that would be fine.
Most readers will find this exchange imaginable right up until the last sentence. It’s the “that would be fine” that doesn’t ring true. You just know that this voter would not be satisfied with this proposed solution. Which is queer. Because it would undeniably solve what this voter has just said is his big problem with immigration.
Somebody here is not telling the truth — and it isn’t the politician.
In our own lives, though, we have no trouble understanding such apparent illogic. When we come up with a solution to an objection raised by friends or workmates and their eyes glaze over or they just raise a different objection, we can explain it. They’re not actually interested in a solution.
We realise that something else is bothering them: something they don’t want to acknowledge, perhaps even to themselves. So we’d be wasting time trying to deal with the stated problem: the real problem may lie elsewhere, maybe a long way away from where the complainant has chosen to focus his complaint. The phenomenon is not far from the Freudian concept of “transference”.
Scratch the surface and we see that beneath apparent practical objections to immigration, lie disappointments and insecurities that feed into, if not outright racism, an irrational resentment of the alien, of the Other.
Why can’t we, and why can’t the Conservative party, understand that this goes a long way to explaining opinion polls and headlines about “popular fury” over “immigration and Europe”? Why haven’t our mainstream politicians the brains or moral courage to push back against the lies and the nonsense?
And why can’t they see that wittering nervously about “game-changing” reforms they hope to conjure from God-knows-where, to “deal with” voters’ concerns about immigration and Europe, impresses nobody: it makes them look rattled and on-the-run. It validates the outriders in our politics: outriders like Ukip who will never be called upon to put their ideas into practice and so can always outbid the mainstream parties with yet more outlandish claims.
Any fool in my part of England knows that if you’re crossing a field and a herd of bullocks starts mobbing you, the worst thing you can do is run. Spin round and face them, wave a stick, clap hands and shout “boo!” They’ll back off. As with bullocks, so with populists. For the best description of Ukip’s claptrap about immigration and Europe, make a simple substitution to the first vowel in “bullocks”. Are the Tories too scared to say this word?
How many Romanians are there in Clacton? I challenge the assumption that very large numbers of people in Britain are seriously affected in their everyday lives by the presence of East European immigrants. It just isn’t true. Where have you seen European immigrants spoiling British people’s lives? The overwhelming majority are Poles. Where is this conjectured anger and resentment towards Poles? Most people consider them a decent, hard-working and useful bunch. Get people off the subject of “immigration generally” and ask them how seriously they feel threatened on a personal basis by Poles, and the anger dies.
Down below this column — if you read me online — there’s a dark and rather scary world we call Readers’ Posts. I go there often to do battle with the Ukip and ConHome astroturfers — the rabble who migrate between the online comment sections of papers like ours, the Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian (places you often sense are not their natural pastures) giving the impression of a huge, angry, grassroots surge of support for Ukip.
For the pleasure of imagining the expressions of complete uninterest spreading across their angry faces as they encounter real facts, I offer a few . . .
According to the Office for National Statistics, net immigration from the eight East European countries that joined the EU in 2004 peaked around 2007 and has declined between then and now. The ONS’s net immigration estimate for 2013 is little over half what it was in 2007. Poland dominates. Romania and Bulgaria do not (so far) feature strongly. Immigration from the Indian subcontinent is as significant as from Europe but much of this is through marriage, and Ukip doesn’t propose to end the right of British nationals to marry foreigners. Public attitudes to immigration have been hostile since 1964: no more so now than then; in fact hostility has dropped from more than 80 per cent to about 60 per cent.
But what has certainly spiked is the importance people attach to the issue. Which brings me back to where we started. I believe there’s something evanescent about this “popular fury”. I’m uncertain of the cause. It may be “transferred” distress among some about the way their life is going generally: a feeling that everything has gone to the dogs. Or it may be economic anxiety and being (as many now are) financially pinched. Or it’s possible that it’s just a fashion. Patrick Kidd in his Times sketch of the by-election count in Clacton described the mood as “Biebermania for pensioners”. We don’t seek explanations for Justin Bieber; we just trust that in time he’ll go away.
I expect that “immigration and Europe” will go away too, in time. Or will do unless the Tories so panic that Britain gets stuck beyond recall on the path to a “no” in a European referendum. The way they’re behaving now, that could very well happen.
* * *
His imaginary response of “We could earmark whatever government money was needed, so that wherever immigrants were placing a big strain on public services, funds would be allocated for the authorities to cope.” is a lie. The politicians never deliver.
One negative response in the comments (Tom Jaffray):
One of the reasons why I subscribe to the Times is to read your thoughtful columns. I have no intention of cancelling my sub, or anything so silly, but I have to say that by your own high standards, this week’s effort was poor: shallow, complacent and condescending.
So let me try to articulate a case for why people worry about immigratiom:
– a general worry that with public services under pressure, a pressure that will only increase, we should not be adding to the problem by encouraging or permitting more people to come to the country;
– a sense of alienation as some immigrant communities seem determined to keep themselves separate, and make little effort at integration. In some parts of Lomdon, for example, it is like being in a foreign country. This problem is exacerbated by the doctrine of multi-culturism whereby criticism of such communities is branded as racist, and ideas of having some respect for our own culture are frowned upon. The failure of so-called immigrant community leaders to speak out against obviously reprehensible behaviour and practices in their own communities makes things worse here;
– horror stories stoked up by the press, including this paper, about how immigrants take advantage of the benefits system. I suspect this is actually quite a small problem on the greater scale of things, but if you are struggling to cope, it certainly doesn’t help;
– the downward pressure on wages as many immigrants are prepared to work for less money. My own anecdotal experience supports this fear;
– the feeling that politicians persistently lie or mislead. For example, it the freedom of movement of member citizens is such a fundamental tenet of the EU that it is downright dishonest of Mr Cameron to suggest that he can really do anything about it short of the UK leaving the EU. And the freedom of movment was an idea conceived against the fact that member states were of equivalent economic standing. It does not require brilliant foresight to see that Romanian and Polish citizens might take rather a different view. Also, quotas are a mad system, difficult to police – does a Somali brain surgeon equate to a Romanian gypsy?
The crazy thing is that immigation, properly controlled and monitored, is undoubtedly a good thing for the country; credit to Douglas Carswell for saying so. And the other problems I have set out could be put in context or addressed specifically, if only politicians were honest and journalists not so lazy and sloppy. But all we get is knee-jerk stuff like quotas or sneering like your column. Where do we see a reasoned and sustained debate about the issues which does not descend to the level of the playground.
Incidentally you are right in saying UKIP has no real idea about how,to really deal with the problem, other than leaving the EU; they seem to try to address the problem directly, though the cynic in me says they are at root no different.
So Matthew, how about a column addressing these points sensibly and clinically without sneering – which really doesn’t become you: you are just not nasty enough!