In the run-up to the referendum, on immigration immigration seemed key to the Leave campaign, who pushed in an irrational and emotional way. They correctly identified that people were sensitive to this.
There were scare stories that Turkey was about to be rushed into the EU and posters with an arrow from Turkey to the UK and the number “76 million”, strongly implying that vast numbers were queuing up to come to the UK. All that was missing was evidence.
I saw another poster with images of David Cameron and Angela Merkel, with Merkel saying “we’ve taken two million now it is your turn”. Again, no evidence, and no hint that Germany might have had good reasons to take in Syrian refugees (basic human decency and compensating for an ageing workforce are two of them).
In a radio debate my UKIP opponent referred to the “undemocratic EU forcing us to accept immigrants” in a way that’s easier to say than to refute — the EU isn’t undemocratic, isn’t forcing us, and it is less clear that immigrants are bad.
Since the referendum, the rise in xenophobia has been chilling. It was doubly chilling to hear Amber Rudd talk of firms being required to publish their numbers of immigrant workers (fortunately there was a U-turn), and Jeremy Hunt talking of training more British doctors and foreign ones only being here for an “interim period”. One might ask why the training of more British doctors has suddenly become possible as soon as a referendum happens.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May failed to get the number of immigrants down. She should know that there has been huge pressure for British businesses to bring people into the country. That is to say, there’s strong evidence that curtailing immigration would harm the economy. I’ve spoken with people who are clearly eligible to come into the UK where the system has still ground very slowly, as if the administration itself were trying to be another barrier.
It’s worth looking at the anxieties around immigration.
Fear of immigrants seems to be greatest where they are fewest. Grounds for assuming they push down wages are questionable: if they do, they might also be keeping prices down.
Immigrants are being blamed for lots of things. Obvious examples include pressure on the NHS, on housing and other infrastructure. But these are actually failures of government. It is, for example, hard to see how immigrants are a strain on the NHS when most of them are at the younger end of the workforce and pay more in tax than they take out in benefits.
I saw a recent Facebook posting about someone who had spoken with a friend who was angrily opposed to the “dominating EU and excessive immigration”: it turned at the friend was stuck in a not-good job, and was venting frustration on the EU and immigrants.
It is feeling as if failures of government are being blamed on immigrants because they are a convenient target: an “other” in our midst. At the best of times that would be dodgy. If the problems are not caused by immigration, then cutting immigration won’t help.
But these are not the best of times. We face real damage to the UK if refusing free movement of people limits access to the single market. We face real damage if limiting migration gets in the way of scientific collaboration, or hits innovation in and around our universities.
It feels as if people’s fears are being stoked by the government. An intuitive sense that “foreigners” are to blame is being mobilised. It is popular, at least in some quarters, but risks real harm.
When raw fears are around, the last thing a democracy needs is a leader who fans the fears to get power (as Hitler did in the 1930s). A wise leader would be offering some stability, would engage with the real problems, and discourage people from putting the blame elsewhere.
Sadly Theresa May’s seems to fall very far short on this. Her approach seems deeply short sighted and deeply divisive. It feels as if the distress causing people to vote “Leave” is being ignored, sidelined by a government more concerned at hiding its shortcomings and in hock to its Europsceptic wing. Before it is too late, we desparately need a change — either an outbreak of sanity in government of a change of government.
Scapegoating is a way of giving the impression of dealing with a problem, without addressing it. A person or group is selected, lots of unconscious feelings are projected onto them and they are then driven out. Normality is restored for a time, until the problems re-appear and a new scapegoat is needed. That’s tough for those scapegoated and doesn’t actually solve the problem. The situation we are in looks much worse than that: scapegoating immigrants tears at the fabric of multi-cultural Britain, and the commitment of the rest of the EU to the free movement of people means that a blinkered approach to immigration threatens real harm to the UK.