Thus far the debate which the great social, economic and phenomenological change of our time has provoked has been facile, simplistic, narrow, shallow. The great transformative process of immigration has been allowed to take place – and is being allowed to continue – and the political class has penetrated no deeper into the matter than to rehearse stale, hollowed out rhetoric whilst examining it with the footling, blinkered utilitarianism of a Gradgrind.
The political debate surrounding immigration evidences the worst characteristics and the most depressing tendencies of our political discourse. It shows us cynically jerry-built antitheses, the fierce operation of an illiberally liberal taboo and words divorced from their meanings.
Politicians have been well-schooled in recent years by psychologists and advertising consultants. They know the simplest, and possibly the most effective, way to construct an argument is to force a complex issue into an easily understandable, rememberable antithesis. These cynical, reductive antitheses allow the politician to attach themselves, their politics, their policy position to already existing ideas in the minds of their audience – ideas which exist very close to the level of prejudices and a long way from the ideal of rational political debate. And they allow politicians to establish a clear divide between themselves and their opponents. The antithesis allows one to define not only one’s own position, but that of one’s opponent as well. And if the antithesis – ideally represented by a simple soundbite – is picked up by the media, then you are setting the terms of the political debate.
I read an article today on education in which a Conservative commentator and politician employed this technique with unusual zeal and unimaginativeness. He divided the political world, and the field of education policy, into a Manichean battle of the traditional vs the modern. He then mixed that up with the borderline paradoxical divide between the righteous people and the wicked establishment. He augmented that theme by opposing bureaucratism (just think about it: who would champion something called that?) to a new style of politics (who knows what that is? but it sounds good). Then finally he rounded it off with the unanswerable postmodern dichotomy: status quo vs change. Or even more baldly: old vs new.
So just to summarise: the commentator was in favour of a traditional, populist, anti-bureaucratic, educational system that embraced change. It sounds absurd when you put it like that, but disaggregated and arranged in an article it works because we side with the writer on each of the false antitheses that the writer tries to stuff the debate into. To agree with the argument of an article written in this way is so easy. The seductiveness of the argument is that the views of the author seem to be aligned with the most basic building blocks of our views.
The argument on immigration is invariably carried out in this way – both by those who wish to encourage immigration and those who wish to discourage it. So the pro-immigrationist tells us that this is a debate between those who want a liberal, open, tolerant, diverse society and the parochial, the fear-addled, the reactionary, the opportunist and the racist. We are to choose between a prosperous and culturally rich society and an inward-looking fortress state which looks wistfully back on a false golden age of village green cricket. The anti-immigrationist maintains that social cohesion is threatened by the atomisation of the multicultural melee, that the traditional British way of life will be diluted and then lost forever.
One of the most pernicious aspects of the debate is the tyranny of a pseudo-liberalism astoundingly lacking in self-knowledge. Liberalism proper is a creed that is passionately committed to free debate, to the contention of all ideas. One of its foundational articles of faith is that in a free and rational debate truth will be triumphant. Yet in the immigration debate a warped liberalism has acted as a sort of gag-order. Discussion of restricting immigration is racist and represents a sort of accommodation with the internal other of the liberal establishment: the almost universally reviled British National Party. Talk of a national culture, or the conditions of citizenship, British history or the bonds of community and you are a xenophobe. These terms – “racist,” “xenophobe” – are not words to open up debate; they are punitive, coercive terms to shut it down. The faux liberalism regnant in this part of political discourse is liberal only insofar as one ascribes to a debased liberalism; it is profoundly intolerant of conservatism, and also perhaps of thoughtfulness and honest doubt.
The threat of being called a racist which polices the debate on immigration is not a threat of being literally called a racist. Almost no one is a racist anymore. Racism is a pseudo-scientific doctrine invented in the nineteenth century which posited that mankind was divided into several racial types – identifiable by phenotypical variation – which could be arranged into a hierarchy of superior and inferior. It was the bastard whelp of early anthropology and was discredited in the nineteenth century. No one believes this anymore. No one is a racist. So racist doesn’t mean racist anymore; it has become completely divorced from its meaning. Racist means outsider, criminal, moral degenerate. It is a symbolic term for someone who utters taboo notions, who fails to approach received notions with sufficient piety. It exists now only as a codeword that alerts people that someone is not to be listened to, that they have no authority to speak. It is an ugly slur, a sort of burning cross on someone’s lawn warning them not to speak out.
Just think about it, anyway. There is no necessary connection between believing that fewer people should be allowed to settle in this country and the idea that those people are racially or culturally inferior to us. Why would there have to be? It is quite coherent to argue that there are too many people already or that they are too different for us to live harmoniously together. The ‘No Entry’ sign doesn’t have to be about inferiority; it can just as easily be about unsuitability: we are not suited to them, they are not suited to us. Tabasco sauce doesn’t go with strawberry yoghurt; there is no undertone of hierarchy, the one is just best not combined with the other.
I said earlier that the term ‘racism’ polices the immigration debate. I think, though, that that is too limited a claim. The ‘racism’ threat is the external policeman, the deterrent effect – but the tyranny of received opinion is much more powerful and frightening than that. The perceived virtue of the liberal view – of openness, tolerance and diversity – is so strong, so pervasive that many of us have come to internalise those views. They have become a sort of immigration super ego punishing us with feelings of guilt if we even countenance divergent views. On reading an article which questions the ‘liberal’ view I have to suppress a feeling of alienated distaste that arises in me. To give anyone who questions these ideas a fair hearing I have to stifle the upflux of indignation that I feel at anyone who commits the solecism of advocating the restriction of immigration. Immediately I think them crass, xenophobic, a self-interested bigot – someone writing in poor taste from low motives. To a greater or lesser degree I think that we have all come to associate virtue with immigration and guilt with its restriction.
The debate too has been maimed by the hegemony of the utilitarian paradigm. British politics has been seized by a myopic economism, so that value has come to be seen as coterminous with GDP and its acolytes interest rates, inflation, pay increases, house prices. Will increased immigration boost growth? Will immigrants increase the value of my house? For more than a decade the debate has been dominated by a multiplication table of numbers about how rich this is making us all. Any talk of restricted immigration has been met with talk of a skills gap. In a politics where economic indicators have become the sole criterion of good we are reduced to an argument between economists. The numbers are with those who favour immigration: immigrants are young, skilled, dynamic – the cure for an ageing, low-skilled, risk-averse economy.
The malformation of the immigration debate as it has developed across the last ten years has not been helped by the party political situation in Britain. The natural home of the anti-immigration case is the Conservative Party, but the general low esteem in which the party has been held has tainted any cause which the party has taken up. For a long time political debate in Britain has been handicapped by the public’s visceral dislike of the Tory party – a dislike so irrational that for a long time the party’s policies became less popular when their source was revealed. Immigration has suffered more than any other area of political debate because of its importance and the strength of the liberal conventional wisdom.
It has been a sadly flawed and dilatory debate; a truly desultory effort from a country with such a long-established public realm and such a wonderful tradition of media independence. If the above gives something of a sense of the failings of the debate thus far, how then should a reinvigorated debate look?