This general election has been the one most dominated by immigration since 1979. Consider the two most important incidents of the past week.
The first was hapless Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. Brown’s behaviour—polite and patient to her face, calling her “a bigoted woman” behind her back—played into a favourite myth peddled by the tabloids and the British National Party (BNP).
This is that “liberal elites” are happy to see Britain flooded by migrants and refuse to acknowledge the legitimate concerns of “ordinary people” about immigration.
Brown himself clearly subscribes to a version of this myth. Having been caught out, he rushed to apologise to Mrs Duffy. This no doubt reflected a conviction that “ordinary people” are generally “bigoted” and that all Labour leaders can do is pander to anti-immigrant prejudice, however much they may privately dislike it.
This is a longstanding attitude. The diaries of Richard Crossman, Labour cabinet minister in the 1960s, repeatedly express the belief that his working class voters in Coventry were racists who wanted tighter immigration controls.
The second key event for Brown was, of course, the final television debate between the leaders of the three main parties. This was descending into tedium until immigration came up.
We were treated to the spectacle of Brown and David Cameron rounding on Nick Clegg to denounce the Liberal Democrats’ proposal to offer an amnesty to some illegal immigrants. This was partly about the representatives of the old two-party system whacking the new kid on the block.
But Cameron and Brown were also trying to signal that they were hard on immigration. The anger that Clegg displayed in his clashes with Cameron on this issue no doubt reflected anxiety that he was being portrayed as “soft” on migrants.
The irruption of immigration in the final stages of the election has almost certainly worked to the Tories’ advantage.
The Financial Times newspaper carried a piece on the subject last Saturday. Apparently Cameron initially resisted considerable pressure to make immigration central to the Tory election campaign, “fearful that the anti-immigration message peddled by his predecessor Michael Howard would spoil his attempts to detoxify the Tory brand.
“Mr Brown’s travails and the debate questions have done Mr Cameron’s job for him, pushing immigration to the centre of the campaign without forcing him to look like the ‘nasty party’ of old. The subject was one of the hottest topics on Twitter on Friday.
“Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website and voice of the party’s grassroots, was among those pushing for more aggression at the start of the campaign. But on Friday he told the Financial Times he was now ‘much happier’ with Mr Cameron’s strategy.
“‘It’s very interesting that the issue came up in all three debates and Cameron hit the issue very hard in the last one.’”
Cameron’s strategy bears some resemblance to Margaret Thatcher’s in 1979. Immigration wasn’t formally central to the Tory campaign then either.
But Thatcher had already, in her notorious World in Action interview of January 1978, made it clear where she stood: “People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”
This phrase—and particularly the use of the word “swamped”—was enough to signal to anyone hostile to migrants that Thatcher was one of them.
It remains to be seen whether the way the election has tilted towards immigration will help to scrape Cameron together a parliamentary majority. Almost certainly it will benefit the hard anti-migrant parties—the BNP, but also UKIP.
At 1979 general election, the Anti Nazi League had reversed the advance of the National Front. Alas, the BNP and the EDL are still on the offensive. Whoever forms the next government, anti-fascists will have plenty to do to undo the damage caused by this noxious election campaign.