You don’t beat them by joining them

Another anti-immigration speech by a Tory politician. Not much to celebrate in that: plenty to critique. David Cameron’s speech yesterday spun half-truths and persuasive populism together to cover the evident gaps in the Tory’s immigration politics. His words were disturbing, not least because of his apparent intention to see those who arrive on working visas barred from permanent settlement: ‘It cannot be right that people coming to fill short-term skills gaps can stay long-term.’
Leaving aside for a moment the question of how “short-term” these skills gaps really are given parallel plans for huge cuts in state education, Cameron seems to still be trying to sell the idea that Britain can use immigrants to plug economic gaps, demand their short-term integration and still refuse them a long-term future. A policy that is both unjust and unworkable, doubly dishonest.
I’m pretty certain Cameron knows immigration is part of a global economy and that irregular, illegal, exploitative movements are really only defeated by opening up regular, safe migration alternatives. Telling little Englanders what they want to hear, while knowing that it’s undeliverable and later retreating from actual implementation, is lazy and cynical politics at its worst.
It’s not often – if ever – that I find myself agreeing with the BNP. Yet their spokesman’s comment that ‘it’s cynical opportunism, isn’t it? It’s almost like a ceremonial adoption of our policy’ catches some of Cameron’s effect if not his intention. Mainstream politicians have for years justified their drift towards anti-migration policies as part of a war against extremism. But you don’t beat them by joining them. As this excellent article in the Economist pointed out a few weeks ago, by adapting the far-right’s policies in order to prevent their electoral success, xenophobes and racists gain a much greater ideological legitimacy and the need for real debate about mobility is avoided.
Yet despite Cameron’s miserable speech, I found myself wondering this morning whether yesterday might actual prove in the long term to mark an optimistic turning point away from blanket anti-migration politics. Not just because of Vince Cable discovering an independent voice again (at least momentarily) and pointing out the dangers of meeting extremism with extremism. But also because the response of the media and the public to the row has been remarkably measured, with only the Daily Mail really braying for Cable’s (and the BBC’s) blood.
Yes, the Daily Mail and Migration Watch are pretty obvious proofs that the insistence that we have a nationwide “immigration problem” in the UK won’t disappear from our politics overnight. But yesterday it did feel as though, for the first time in many months, the political and media consensus had cracked. Let’s hope this is the first sign that we might be moving closer to having a real debate on immigration and mobility, one where both sides of the argument get to speak.