From 5000 miles away, the EU elections being held today seem unreal. Much like the antics of the Tea Party observed from Britain, the surge of support for UKIP and Nigel Farage plays out like a pantomime farce: except the consequences will be deadly serious. I wonder daily whether I’ll ever be willing to return home to a Little England shrinking further daily into self-regarding conviction that it’s not really racist to blame immigrants: that it’s not really the same as blaming blacks.
I’m tired of calls to “respect” the public’s hostility. I’m not sure where the blurred lines lie between listening and pandering, between democracy and populism, but I think we’ve crossed them. Yet writing the latest chapter for my book today (first draft to be complete in about six weeks time), I was reminded that this is not the first time that migration policy has been dictated by the politics of prejudice and not the principles of progress. Mending Migration is a book that tries to untangle the messy politics of immigration and inequality – and in doing so, it traces some of the miserable compromises made in the name of the electorate:
Between 1948 and 1981, all those born or naturalised in the UK or its colonies held UK and Commonwealth citizenship – and it was this status that facilitated the significant post-war migration waves from the West Indies, India and Pakistan to Britain. We have all heard – and many times condemned – Enoch Powell’s foretelling of ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, an England overrun with ‘wide-grinning piccaninnies’. Yet what is less remembered is that as early as 1962, the UK Government had already begun to curb non-white migration, imposing new and tougher entry restrictions in the face of public hostility. These controls would be tightened still further in the decades to come, as anxieties over levels of immigration reached fever pitch.
From the 1960s, migration policies were successively tightened – and citizenship “renationalised” in order to prevent further waves of non-white immigration. Yet these migration and citizenship policies were driven by the weight of public opinion and electoral arithmetic – and flew in the face of both principle and economic evidence. As Richard Crossman, Labour Minister for Housing and Local Government, wrote in his diaries at the time, after his government voted to impose further immigration restrictions in 1965:
‘We have become illiberal and lowered the quota at a time when we have an acute shortage of labour… nevertheless, I am convinced that if we hadn’t done this, we would have been faced with certain electoral defeat… Politically, fear of immigration is the most powerful undertow today’.
My hope is that in forty years time, UKIP’s rhetoric will be considered as taboo as Powell’s chilling words are now. But I fear there may be Government ministers writing those same words in their diaries today – and announcing a new raft of “tough” immigration measures tomorrow.