The sneaking feeling of sympathy that I felt for Gordon Brown when he was ambushed and coshed by the Sun attack machine over Afghanistan didn’t survive the appalling speech he made about immigration on Thursday of last week.
The most striking passages were where Brown sought to signal that he accepts the legitimacy of the anti-immigrant furore driven by the British National Party (BNP) and the tabloids:
“I have never agreed with the lazy elitism that dismisses immigration as an issue, or portrays anyone who has concerns and questions about immigration as a racist. Immigration is not an issue for fringe parties nor a taboo subject.”
Brown went on to feed fears about jobs and housing:
“If you’re living in a town which hasn’t seen much migration before, you may worry about whether immigration will undermine wages and the job prospects of your children – and whether they will be able to get housing anywhere near you.
“And everyone wants to be assured that newcomers will accept the responsibilities as well as the rights that come with living here – they’ll accept the responsibilities to obey the law, to speak English, to make a contribution. So if people ask me, ‘Do I get it?’ Yes – I get it.”
The additional measures Brown announced, further tightening what he called New Labour’s “tough but fair” approach to immigration, are serious enough. For example, over 250,000 engineering, care, and catering jobs will be closed to non-Europeans next year.
More serious still is what the speech – which follows an apology by home secretary Alan Johnson, who said the government had been “maladroit” about immigration – implies about the New Labour response to the BNP and their ilk.
According to the Guardian, “Labour ministers have been spooked by private polling showing immigration as the single biggest issue sparking defections among the party’s past voters.”
Brown’s speech seems to have been timed to influence voting in the Glasgow North East by-election, where Johnson predicted (wrongly, as it turned out) that the BNP would come third.
Faced with a growing hubbub over immigration, Brown and Johnson have decided to appease it with apologies and concessions. There is nothing new about this.
In his pioneering book, Immigration and Race in British Politics (1965), Paul Foot described the same pattern of political response to the migration of east European Jews before the First World War and that of African-Caribbean and South Asian people after 1945.
In each case the far right spread racist stereotypes and lies about the migrants and agitated for immigration controls.
The establishment parties conceded partially to these demands in the hope that this would keep their own voters happy. Instead, these concessions simply increased the appetite of the far right, who campaigned for yet more stringent controls.
We have come a long way down this infernal road since the debates about what was called “Commonwealth immigration” back in the 1950s and 1960s. Immigration restrictions have become ever tighter. For example, the home office’s new bill gives the government a general power to expel illegal migrants and failed asylum seekers.
Brown and Johnson probably believe quite sincerely that following this path is the best way of undercutting the appeal of Nick Griffin and the BNP and reaching alienated Labour voters.
But they should take a look at what followed the first significant immigration controls since the Second World War were imposed in 1962.
Have the far right become stronger or weaker over that period of nearly 50 years? The tragic truth is that for all the successes of the waves of anti-fascist campaigning since the 1970s, they are stronger.
Feeding racism only strengthens it. It can be defeated only by confronting it – and by offering the alternative that Brown, because he is part of the status quo, is incapable of providing.