WE have no reason to be complacent on race, but recent polling gives some cause for comfort, says Joyce McMillan.
Nine weeks to go to Britain’s general election; and just for a moment, a few days ago, all was sweetness and light in the camp of Ukip, the anti-European-Union party that has spent the last five years shaking up English politics, and capitalising on the mad-as-hell disaffection of an elderly and socially conservative segment of the voting public.
Our two leading political parties have refrained from indulging in inhumane rhetoric
In statesmanlike tones, the party’s leader Nigel Farage was to be heard setting out the terms of the party’s positive policy on immigration, which, he said, would use the same kind of points system deployed by the Australian government, in deciding which would-be immigrants have skills the UK needs and wants.
Ukip’s moment in the sun as a pro-immigration party was destined to be brief, though; for no sooner was the new Nigel Farage launched on the political market, than the old one reared his head again, in a Channel 4 interview with former Equality and Human Rights Commission boss Trevor Phillips, during which the Ukip leader declared that his party would simply scrap “much of” Britain’s anti-discrimination law. Farage made it clear that he was keen on allowing discrimination on grounds of nationality rather than of race, so that employers could, for example, choose a British worker over a Polish one. But when Phillips asked him if he would therefore leave Britain’s law against racial discrimination in place, he said “No”, arguing that race was now an irrelevance in British society, and that the legislation was no longer needed.
Now it goes without saying that the levels of denial involved in this assertion are breathtaking. Yet what Farage’s recent political remarks demonstrate, above all, is how difficult it is for those tangling with the politics of reaction and nostalgia to keep several quite distinct issues from merging into a general mood of vague xenophobic disgruntlement. Essentially, Farage’s recent pronoucements have been dealing with three different topics, on which his party is setting out quite distinct policies. The first is immigration in general, to be covered by the policy Farage outlined last week. The second is the European Union, membership of which compels us to accept open immigration from other EU states.And the third is legislation against racial discrimination in Britain, to which – according to his own declared anti-racist values – Farage can have no conceivable objection, despite his declared intention to abolish it.
To say that these Ukip policies are becoming confused – both in themselves, and with each other – is to put it politely, in other words; and they raise the interesting question of how the Ukip political agenda plays out in Scotland, where a YouGov survey for the BBC was published this week analysing Scottish attitudes to immigration, and was immediately hailed by some as showing Scots to be just as hostile to immigration as everyone else in the UK.
In fact, though, despite a headline figure of 49 per cent who think immigration should be reduced (the same as in the UK as a whole), this survey shows some interesting divergences of opinion north and south of the Border, with 6 per cent more in Scotland happy with immigration at its present level, 5 per cent more convinced that it has been good for the country, and a swingeing 11 per cent more convinced that it has been good for the economy.
As in most surveys of social attitudes, in other words, the differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK are not huge, but are big enough to be statistically significant, and perhaps to shift the balance of the Scottish debate into less emotive territory than that inhabited by Ukip. This is not, of course, because people in Scotland are “less racist” – the recent experience of asylum-seekers trying to make new lives in our cities tells us a different story from that.
There are, though, two other reasons for this divergence, both of which deserve some thought. The first is that there has, proportionally, been far less migration into Scotland in recent decades than into the south of England, creating far fewer social tensions. And the second is that throughout this period, both of our two leading political parties have refrained from indulging in the kind of inhumane rhetoric about the “threat” of immigration that has constantly raised the emotional temperature around this issue at Westminster. Scottish Labour was traditionally Scotland’s leading anti-racist party; and the SNP – so far from the neo-fascist agenda sometimes weirdly ascribed to it – has adopted a strikingly liberal stance on both immigration and cultural diversity, as a part of the modernising project that has transformed the SNP into the party most closely associated with Scotland’s 21st century future.
It remains true, of course, that Scotland’s political class cannot afford to talk complacently of a progressive national consensus on these issues; it should, I think, particularly avoid making any assumptions about Scotland’s attitude to the European Union, an institution which is vulnerable to many of the same criticisms, in terms of elite capture and democratic accountability, that the SNP applies to Westminster.
On the whole, though, it seems as though the Scottish parties’ decision to lead from the liberal centre-left on race and migration, and not to feed the rhetoric of fear and xenophobia that so often shapes the immigration debate at UK level, has had an almost entirely positive effect, particularly in enabling us to keep untangling this fierce knot of related issues, and to think relatively clearly about the race laws we want, the immigration we need, and the EU membership we would probably still choose, if a referendum were held tomorrow.
And while most of this is a matter of historical accident, and none of it is any cause for complacency or self-congratulation, it does provide an explanation for one more significant statistical divergence – that is, for Ukip’s relatively weak political support north of the Border, now running at around 3 per cent in the polls, compared with 15 per cent in the UK as a whole: the kind of gap which tells the story of two nations which are indeed pretty similar, but are sometimes, nonetheless, just divergent enough to tip over a line, into what can seem like a very different political conversation, taking place in slightly different world.
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