Joyce McMillan: The importance of standing up to immigration ‘bigots’

Gordon Brown was not necessarily wrong to detect an element of bigotry in Gillian Duffy's views during this infamous encounter ahead of the 2010 election (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Gordon Brown was not necessarily wrong to detect an element of bigotry in Gillian Duffy's views during this infamous encounter ahead of the 2010 election (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
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We have lost an essential bulwark against foul, reactionary and proto-fascistic politics, writes Joyce McMillan.

When I survey the current grim state of European and US politics, it’s surprising how often my mind drifts back to a single day in April 2010, when one mainstream leader of a Western democracy came to grief in a manner that somehow seems to sum up the key political dilemma of our times. I’m talking, of course, about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and his ill-fated encounter, during the general election campaign of 2010, with a woman called Gillian Duffy, a lifelong Labour supporter who, during a walkabout in Rochdale, offered various thoughts about problems of crime and employment in her home town, and then moved on to the subject of “all these Eastern Europeans” – a problem of “too many people”, she said, mostly coming here just to claim benefits.

Her exchange with the Prime Minister was brief, and was of course followed by one of the most excruciating gaffes in British political history; back in his car, and unaware that his lapel microphone was still switched on, Gordon Brown described her as “some bigoted woman”, and then watched over the next few hours as what was left of his political career went up in smoke.

The consensus about what had happened was instant and absolute. Gillian Duffy was not a bigot, the consensus said, and Gordon Brown was wrong to use the word about her. She was just a woman trying to raise legitimate concerns about immigration; and the fact that Britain’s political elite tended to dismiss such concerns as racism or bigotry signalled only the extent to which they were out of touch with ordinary people and their problems.

And over the next few years, not only in the UK but beyond, that consensus became part of a growing received wisdom which argued that anti-immigrant views must be heard, and that not to hear them and act on them is damaging to democracy, demonstrating contempt for those on the sharp end of the social changes brought by mass migration. If the phrase “legitimate concerns” was used once – by politicians of right, left and centre – it was used a thousand times; and the idea seemed to be that if the issue of immigration was freely discussed, then new and rational policies could be put in place, that would reassure the public and reduce tensions.

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What is becoming increasingly evident, though, is that it hasn’t worked out like that. On the contrary, it seems that the more mainstream politicians move to accommodate and respond to anti-immigrant feeling, the stronger it becomes, and the more extreme in its demands. All across Europe and the United States, since the early years of this decade, politicians of the far right from UKIP to the German AfD have felt emboldened to make their case with a new and militant self-righteousness; and mainstream political parties – from the Conservativews in the UK to the US Republicans – have not been slow to make sharp rightward moves in response.

In that time, the British Labour Party has become so afraid of popular anti-immigrant feeling that it now dare not even oppose the looming disaster of Brexit; and Europe has become a continent of wealthy nations that would rather stand by and watch a huge, quiet holocaust on its southern borders – with almost 3,000 people each year dying in the Mediterranean in desperate efforts to reach our shores – than step up to our obligations in terms of the rights of refugees, and of common humanity.

So it is perhaps, in the light of this experience, time to think again about exactly what we mean when we talk about the “legitimate concerns” of those who do not like immigration. Poor or overpriced housing, overcrowded schools and a struggling health service are ‘legitimate concerns’, for example; but the idea that those problems are exacerbated by immigration, rather than often helped by a powerful wave of well-trained workers from other countries, has never been anything more than a lie, peddled by certain sections of the media.

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Subject “legitimate concerns” about immigration to a fact-check, in other words, and they often tend to melt down to this: that some people don’t like people from other countries and cultures coming to live in their midst, tend greatly to overestimate both their numbers and the threat they pose, and often don’t bother to check their hostile assumptions against the facts, or to get to know people from other countries and cultures before judging them; and that, let’s face it, is a fairly good working definition of bigotry, xenophobia, or racism.

All of which suggests that the uncomfortable truth we perhaps now have to face is that Gordon Brown was not necessarily wrong to detect an element of bigotry in Gillian Duffy’s views; and that the 50-year consensus that kept open hostility to foreigners and racial minorities out of our mainstream political discourse, not only in the UK but across Europe and north America, was perhaps an essential bulwark against the kind of foul, reactionary and proto-fascistic politics that is being unleashed now. Times have changed, of course; and under 21st century conditions, political and media establishments can no longer easily conspire, as they could in the 1960s, to silence disruptive or shocking views.

Yet history still reminds us that the fact that views are held by large numbers of people does not necessarily make them right, or even defensible. There was a right answer for Gordon Brown to have given Gilliam Duffy in Rochdale that day; he could have issued a comradely challenge, asking her if it was really the European migrants themselves who bothered her, or issues like housing, health services and low pay. As the reaction to Gordon Brown’s comment showed, though, challenging voters on their opinions, however ill-founded, has become one of the great taboos of modern marketing-driven political culture; and seems set to remain so, despite mounting evidence that in the effort to give the people what they want – or, if you like, to reflect their “will” – the present generation of Western politicians may have embarked on a very dangerous path indeed, and one that ends only in violence, and despair.