We need to talk about immigration

For longer than I care to remember , UKIP has been talking about immigration and how it must be controlled, meaning “constrained”. Indeed the subject of immigration has long since reached the point of being the party’s single issue, often masking the original objective of the “UK Independence Party” (the clue’s in the name) to take Britain out of the EU.

Yes I do understand the point that immigration became UKIP’s “primary talking point” — let’s call it that instead of “single issue” — precisely because it is so entwined with EU membership. In short, there are limits on a country’s power to control immigration whilst in the EU…Or at least limits to control a certain type of immigration while in the EU, namely immigration from EU/EEA countries that participate in the single market.

At the best of times, immigration is an issue that is necessarily charged and needs careful handling. But instead of acknowledging this and working within the natural constraints and sensitivities of the subject, UKIPers led by Nigel Farage (“who tells it like it is”) have strayed further and further in a particular direction on immigration and persistently flirt with some rather unpleasant impulses, expressed in loose talk that plays well in the tabloids.

Anyone who occupies social media will know exactly what I’m talking about: a group of people who shout and scream about “muslim invasion” and of liberal conspiracies run by the Bilderberg Group; of disease-carrying immigrants “coming over here and taking our jobs” (and simultaneously claiming out-of-work benefits, by the way), threatening our health service and schools, clogging our roads, talking funny on trains, causing our grass verges to be left uncut, and so it goes on.

It has thus descended into anything but a serious conversation about immigration, resembling instead an argument in a pub between some drunken, moronic old soaks who’ve been propping up the bar since “Love Thy Neighbour” was still considered funny.

And it threatens the whole Brexit cause.

It cuts no ice with me to quote figures from opinion polls saying how immigration is a top issue of concern to voters. To be clear, I don’t doubt that it is a top issue, possibly even THE top issue. The point is that it comes back to engaging with that issue in an intelligent manner that befits the subject, not as a shoot-from-the-hip oaf who drives away as many voters as he motivates and thereby becomes “marmite man” (and remarkably even revels in that label). That approach might work well— and arguably has — in the establishing of an upstart anti-politics party that can tap into a reasonable-sized seam of opinion among the disaffected, the disillusioned, the fearful, and the ignorant. But it’s severely limited and actually counter-productive when trying to win over 51% of the electorate. It casts all Brexiteers as either overt or tacit supporters of this poisonous approach and thus poisons the Brexit cause.

What is a particularly sore point for me is that this apparent miscasting of all other Brexiteers is not without merit. Those of us who have followed this for years will have sat through “eurosceptic” meetings with Conservatives and Labour people who quietly toyed with and generally humoured UKIP’s march through such groups. Many still do.

In that sense “we” created Farage. Now we are reaping what we have sown. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. And it’s why such groups need a dose of discomfort.

So where does all that take us regarding immigration in the context of Brexit?

Do we just have to avoid the subject of immigration and consign it to the drawer marked “Difficult”? Surely that would mean the main Westminster parties and indeed the European Union win by default. Should we even encourage Brexiteers to expound the merits of immigration, even if many of those individuals won’t believe that message? At least it would neutralise the issue and allow us to move on to higher ground arguments.

The answer to these questions is “no”.

To explain, we first need to go back to some basic principles: What is it that actually concerns us here, before Farage and his placemen perverted the debate to the extent that even they are confused by two different things?

The crux of this matter is who should have the power to control immigration? Is it the British people through their democratic institutions or is it the EU? My answer is always the British people — the demos.

But surely UKIPers would answer the same way, you may say, in which case let me make it a little clearer:

The British people should hold the power to control immigration. But how much or indeed even whether that control is then exercised should be a wholly secondary consideration for Brexiteers.

The immigration issue is thus primarily a democratic argument.

It is about who holds the power to control borders but not necessarily how that power is exerted once it is gained, nor to what extent it is exerted or even whether it is exerted at all. It is for us as a nation to decide. Numbers and quality of migrants represent an entirely secondary argument once the primary point about where power resides is resolved. Because with accountability and responsibility comes competence: the very act of restoring power to the British people over this issue will prompt a more measured and sensible debate, one which I personally suspect will bring with it a fairly liberal immigration policy that’s not a million miles from where we are now. But it will be legitimate.

As it stands, the present situation with the EU and immigration to the UK is one that anyone over the age of 13 has experienced at some point in their lives — of being told they’re not allowed to do something because it’s not in the rules. That lights a small fire in some of us —an instinct to kick back. The sullen, hostile, attention-seeking teenager epitomises this instinct.

In short, the removal of our power to affect a significant part of immigration policy has infantilised this country. It has turned too many of us into blathering idiots…

“Well, if you’re telling me I can’t stop immigration, I’m going to bloody well call for exactly that because I want my country back and I want to control who comes in. And No you can piss off, I don’t want any old Tom, Dick and Harry coming in just because you say it’s OK.”

The retrospective rationalisation of one’s rage soon follows and it all goes down hill from here…

“I mean, look at these people : they look so unkempt. Lord knows what they are carrying with them. And listen to them — they can’t even speak English.”

This is the journey taken by UKIP under Farage: it has become a magnet for juvenile reactionaries. It attracts hot-headed types from among those Britons who tell pollsters they think 31% of the population are foreign-born and 24% are muslim (it’s actually 13% and 5% respectively).

There is also a trend of people living far away from the effects of immigration who none the less get very frothy about it. Conversely, the part of the country most relaxed about immigration is the heavily “migrantised” London.

This is a type of politics that too often panders to fear of the unknown and downright ignorance.

What we need instead is to bring the issue back to the original cause: that the power to make these decisions has been taken away from us and we want that power back.

We make no commitments about exerting that power in a particular way but we do explain that once that power is returned, we can then have a grown up debate about it and come to arrangements well suited to these islands, our culture, temperament, history and our global trading outlook.

If you are a UKIPer and still think that this is exactly what UKIP is about, then you haven’t been concentrating.

On the other hand, you may think this alternative approach of casting the subject as a democratic argument is “too high brow”, perhaps even “intellectual bollocks”; that it doesn’t speak to people’s daily experience and what they see on TV; that it’s basically a fringe neo-Bennite approach to the subject.

Well there’s certainly a small warning about this approach within those sentiments but it comes down to presentation and substance. Along with a quick reminder of the fact that the referendum won’t in any event be won by loose-cannon rants about immigration.

Presentation is, as the word suggests, about presenting things in a way to make them understandable and mostly to persuade the “presentees”. But presentation is (or should be) born from substance & detail, and when it isn’t, it tends to get caught out and the presentation then fails to convince.

Policy is the same and it’s why the core of politics — policy formulation — is actually rather dull and inhabited by “wonks”: deep thinkers with very intelligent legal-type minds.

Putting a wonk in a frontline presentation role is not always a good idea — Ed Miliband was dogged by a perception that he was “wonkish”, a bit weird and therefore, because of his carefully chosen words, appeared to be inauthentic.

But the reverse is also true: a natural presenter who doesn’t understand the detail is equally dangerous. If such a presenter has first absorbed the detail, they know exactly how to best present that without stumbling into something that isn’t strictly (or not at all) true. But if they haven’t, they will constantly shoot from the hip and ultimately make a complete mess of things despite being an undoubtedly good presenter.

You can see where I’m going with this, but actually I’m going to resist bashing Farage again even though he fits the latter mould exactly.

The point is that the democratic approach to the subject of immigration can be presented very powerfully, and it can command widespread support from people across the whole spectrum — liberal free marketeers, Labourites, UKIPers, Conservatives. And who knows? Maybe even Libdems. Well, OK…

And this approach has the welcome effect of discharging a great deal of sensitivity from the issue, while taking the higher ground.

Of course the immigration issues of the day can (and should) still be openly discussed and debated — there is plenty to discuss. But Brexiteers should remember what their primary objective is here: It’s exit from the EU and rebuilding a democratic Britain; it’s not the building of a long term political party which, at most, is of secondary importance [another blogpost perhaps]. In debate, we should engage in a way that is tweaked in small but very significant ways, concluding that immigration is indeed a democratic issue and that EU exit is an obvious way of starting to regain the power to control it. Presenters of the case therefore don’t stumble into obvious traps that poison the case.

We’ve had quite enough of that already.