Monday, 26 October 2009

Rebuking the divisive myths of immigration

In Friday's Evening Standard, Andrew Neather wrote an article in which he claimed that "the deliberate policy of ministers from late 2000 until at least February last year, when the Government introduced a points-based system, was to open up the UK to mass migration." Although this sounds like the beginning of a BNP or Daily Mail diatribe, Neather goes on to describe the effects of this policy - "especially for middle-class Londoners" - as "highly positive."
It's not simply a question of foreign nannies, cleaners and gardeners - although frankly it's hard to see how the capital could function without them.
Their place certainly wouldn't be taken by unemployed BNP voters from Barking or Burnley - fascist au pair, anyone? Immigrants are everywhere and in all sorts of jobs, many of them skilled.
My family's east European former nannies, for example, are model migrants, going on to be a social worker and an accountant. They have integrated into London society.
But this wave of immigration has enriched us much more than that. A large part of London's attraction is its cosmopolitan nature.
It is so much more international now than, say, 15 years ago, and so much more heterogeneous than most of the provinces, that it's pretty much unimaginable for us to go back either to the past or the sticks.
The argument is a superficial one, defending immigration on the dubious grounds that it offers the middle classes a pool of easily-exploited labour without having to go near the dreadful and racist working classes. As with the argument "that mass immigration was the way that the Government was going to make the UK truly multicultural," the presumptions at the heart of Neather's article are nonsensical.

Britain was a multicultural country long before New Labour came to power. London, which was more populous in 1939 (with 8,615,245 residents) than 2007 (with 7,556,900), has been home to notable ethnic minority populations since the end of the 18th Century. Liverpool, meanwhile, is home to Britain's oldest black community, dating back to the 1730s, and the oldest Chinese community in Europe. Multiculturalism in the political sense, which mostly involves paying off "community leaders" for votes and passivity, is a new phenomenon, but Britain being multi ethnic is not.

However, the article has quickly been subsumed by the right, who have leapt upon it as a confirmation of their every belief.

In his column for the Sun, gleefully reposted by Tory "antifascists" Nothing British, Trevor Kavanagh ponders our future as "a troubled, divided and quarrelsome country with too few immigrants who really want to work and too many who wish to bring this country crashing to its knees through violence." Referring to Neather's article, he adds bitterly that "thanks to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Home Secretaries like Jack Straw, none of us had a damn thing to say about it."

Despite the fact that Neather admitted that his sense ministers sought "to rub the Right's nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date" "wasn't [the policy's] main purpose," that turn of phrase has been taken up in outrage. Hence, the Telegraph tells us that "the huge increases in migrants over the last decade were partly due to a politically motivated attempt by ministers to radically change the country and "rub the Right's nose in diversity."" From this, they tenuously postulated "a "conspiracy" within Government to impose mass immigration for "cynical" political reasons."

Likewise, the Daily Mail says that Labour's Cabinet Office report from 2000 "claimed mass immigration would make Britain more multicultural and allow Labour to portray the Tories as racists." They wheel out Andrew Green, perhaps the sole member of MigrationWatch UK and a stock Mail quote source, to insist that "mass immigration under this government was a deliberate policy concealed from the public, and especially from the white working class whose lives and neighbourhoods have been most affected."

Neather has denied all this in a new article for the Evening Standard, reiterating his stance as it was before the media twisted it into a sinister immigrant conspiracy;
Multiculturalism was not the primary point of the report or the speech. The main goal was to allow in more migrant workers at a point when - hard as it is to imagine now - the booming economy was running up against skills shortages.
But my sense from several discussions was there was also a subsidiary political purpose to it - boosting diversity and undermining the Right's opposition to multiculturalism.
I was not comfortable with that. But it wasn't the main point at issue.
Somehow this has become distorted by excitable Right-wing newspaper columnists into being a "plot" to make Britain multicultural.
His words are written in vain, the truth having long since been discarded as an obstacle to media coverage of immigration and asylum issues. Hence the news that "critics of Labour's more relaxed immigration policy seized on [Neather's] comments and called for a proper investigation," with Frank Field and Damien Green both adding their voices to the circus.

Neather's original concerns, and certainly the hysterical version produced by the media, are of course unfounded. Far from "open[ing] up the UK to mass migration," New Labour has made the border control system more rigid and oppressive than it ever was.

Under New Labour, Britain's gulag archipelago of immigrant prisons has grown to unprecedented levels. Until September last year, we violated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by continuing to detain 2,000 refugee children a year, a fact that drew continuing condemnation. That children of refugees were being born in prison and detained at birth only heightened the outrage.

At the same time, the welfare offered to a single asylum seeker (as they are not allowed to work or claim benefits) keeps them 30% below the official poverty line. Despite powerful objections from the medical profession, efused asylum seekers, undocumented migrant workers, victims of trafficking, and recipients of Section IV Support are denied access to primary care on the NHS. Trafficked women freed from sex slavery are deported back to where they were captured originally, often only to repeat the original nightmare. Refugees are returned to countries where they face torture and death [1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. These are just a few examples of the brutalities inherent in the British immigration system.

As No One is Illegal argue,
As well as being racist, controls are also inherently authoritarian. They can never be “fair” to those subject to them. As long as there are immigration laws, there will be people who fall foul of them and are crushed by them. Arguing that such destruction is “something we just have to live with” is to fall into another lethal category error. Those subject to control are human beings not vegetables or inanimate objects.
There is a broader issue at stake here as well. Across half the world, workers are rising up in rebellion against the capitalist system. There has, in the past few months, been a growing movement of strikes, occupations, and rebellions on a scale that hasn't been seen for a considerable amount of time. The high profile of the recent Royal Mail strike, whilst most other actions went on in relative obscurity, has brought the fact home to those in decision making sectors. Ten days ago, the Guardian published an editorial calling the recent strike actions "a harbinger of times to come," namely "a second winter of discontent." The Times and Telegraph followed suit over the past two days, each warning of further strikes to come.

The news of a supposed immigration "conspiracy," then, couldn't have been better timed. I don't harbour any illusions that the story was conjured up deliberately to meet the circumstances, as this flies in the face of a free-market propaganda model. However, it is well established that racial and national division is an effective tool of diminishing class consciousness for those in power. Had this particular "story" not arisen when it did, then no doubt a similar one would have presented itself in due time.

A divided working class, overtaken by reaction and defining societal problems on the basis of race or nationality, is a threat only to itself. Either we strengthen the position of established power or, faced with a situation otherwise ripe for popular revolution, we leave ourselves vulnerable to fascism. We must reject this trend at all costs if we want to see any effective and lasting change.