If you wanted to name the date on which it all started – this latest and most dispiriting phase in the long history of immigration politics in the UK – then I suppose you might well choose 28 April 2010. That was the day, just a week or so before the last UK general election, when the ill-starred Gordon Brown, campaigning on the streets of Rochdale, met a Labour-voting woman called Mrs Gillian Duffy, and – having chatted to her pleasantly enough about her concerns over “all these East Europeans” coming to Britain – indiscreetly muttered into a still-live microphone, as he drove away, that the encounter had been a “disaster”, and that Mrs Duffy was “some bigoted woman”.
The incident, of course, represented every 21st century politician’s worst nightmare; it so clearly marked the death of Gordon Brown’s political career that the brilliant American satirist Jon Stewart broadcast a little graphic of its soul flying heavenwards, as Brown sat head-in-hands in a radio studio, listening to the tape.
And insofar as any political lesson has been learned from the events of Duffy Day, it seems to have boiled down to this: that when British working-class people express xenophobic sentiments, then you had better treat those views with respect, and do your best to appear “tough on immigration”.
And so it is that three years down the line, we find ourselves amid the ugly and often indefensible shambles that is current British immigration policy; so badly administered, indeed, that this week the Home Secretary, Theresa May, took the decision to put the ill-conceived UK Border Agency out of its misery and simply abolish it. Migration issues are never simple, of course.
Yet at the deepest level, the problems with British immigration policy can be traced to a single cause: the fact that the policies being advocated by all three UK main parties are based on xenophobic myth-making and scaremongering – zealously promoted, of course, by some sections of the media – rather than on evidence; and that they therefore tend to come unstuck whenever they begin to engage with reality.
The first and most damaging myth, for example, is that migrants cost Britain more than they contribute; when in fact, for example, the EU migrants who were the objects of this week’s piece of anti-migrant grandstanding by the Cameron government typically pay 37 per cent more in taxes than they claim in benefits.
The second is that migrants come here because of Britain’s “generous” benefits system: when in fact, our benefits system is one of the meanest in Europe, providing no support at all for many seeking refugee status, and routinely failing to provide unemployed job-seekers with an income on which they can survive.
And the third myth is that despite all of the above, we are doing migrants a huge favour by letting them into the UK; when in fact our higher education institutions, for example, are increasingly dependent for their very survival on the good will of incoming foreign students, and on the high overseas fees they pay.
For us in Scotland, with our ageing and relatively small population, the need to operate under an immigration system which makes such negative and hostile assuptions about migrants is particularly unfortunate.
In the last couple of months, I’ve come across at least two cases of bright young arts professionals, ready to settle here and contribute massively to Scottish life, who have instead been sent home to apply for readmission, through the shamingly Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the UK Border Agency.
Nor is it a matter of chance that the roof-raising musical Glasgow Girls – recently acclaimed in London, for its real-life story of six teenage schoolgirls who campaigned to stop the deportation of their asylum-seeker schoolfriends – comes from a Scottish city clear-sighted enough to grasp that the arrival of a bunch of highly-motivated, well-educated young asylum-seekers, from all across the globe, is more of a gift to the city than a threat.
It is true, of course, that Britain attracted a very high number of migrants, particularly from the EU, during the boom years of the 2000s and that their presence in the country helped depress wages for some categories of British workers, as well as putting pressure on some public services.
Yet none of these problems would have loomed so large – or indeed presented themselves as problems at all – if we had not been living in a society committed to a poorly-regulated labour market, in which the real incomes and security of working-class people have been gradually deteriorating for years; combine that with a hopelessly inflated housing market, and a systematic failure to build new social housing, and the resilience to change of some battered working-class communities that has been reduced to zero, with predictable results.
Individuals are responsible for their own words and attitudes, of course. As a professed Labour voter, Mrs Gillian Duffy could have binned whatever right-wing paper informed her that East Europeans were getting more than their fair share of housing and benefits, checked those allegations against reality, thought things through, and recognised that “divide and rule” is the first law of entrenched power and wealth.
In the end, though – after such a drastic drift to the right in our national conversation, over so many years – there is no substitute for the kind of brave political leadership that would change the terms of debate, reaffirm the value of solidarity among working people, and start campaigning to reverse the steady assault on the dignity and security of ordinary workers that has made the politics of fear, envy and hate so easy to promote.
For it should, in the end, be a matter of enduring shame to all mainstream British politicians, at UK level, that through sheer political cowardice, they have allowed the terms of the immigration debate in the UK simply to part company with reality. So that now, they speak and legislate not in the real world – where ordinary people travel, and strive, and try to build better lives for themselves and their families – but in a fantasy-world constructed by right-wing headline-writers; the better to promote a world-view, and a kind of hate-driven politics, which offers no future, and with with which no progressive party can afford to have any truck at all.