Back in 2005 Michael Howard launched a truly horrible poster campaign asking ‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ with a series of ‘homely truths’.
You saw it all over the streets insinuating itself into your psyche and forming a sort of suspicion and fear into everything. Shit, what are they thinking? What are people thinking they’re thinking? It was a series of posters, billboards, and TV commercials with messages like “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “How would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” and focused on issues like dirty hospitals, landgrabs by “gypsies” and restraints on police behaviour. They contaminated the public space.
This week that campaign came of age, and even if it ended in farce (‘The immigration invasion that never was‘) it’s still a vile part of public life in today’s Britain.
It was Lynton Crosby’s idea.
Nine years on, are you thinking what I’m thinking? I don’t want to be part of this racist state any more. Luckily as Westminster descends into a race to the bottom over race and immigration, have some alternatives looming. On immigration and Europe and how we present to the world we’ve got the chance to set a new path:
“Scotland is not well served by Westminster’s decisions on immigration and, given our specific circumstances, finding the right approach for Scotland’s economy and society is an important part of ensuring a more sustainable future for our nation.” – Scotland’s Future
After weeks of dog-whistle politics – with Labour’s David Blunkett aping Enoch Powell in 1968 saying:
We have got to change the behaviour and the culture of the the Roma community, because there’s going to be an explosion otherwise. We all know that…
– the reality was that the ‘Roma invasion’ never came. As Romany journalist Jake Bowers wrote, Blunkett wasn’t so much predicting social conflict as adding to it.
It’s one of the very worst aspects of contemporary British political culture – this abject mainstreaming of explicit racism. The drumbeat of xenophobia (chiming beautifully with the traditional ‘scrounger’ narrative) has been growing louder since Blunkett’s outburst as English politicians tumble over each other to outdo each other in virulent opposition to ‘Roma’ and Bulgarians.
“The country would be swamped” we were warned. Instead, yesterday streets were quiet as people nursed hangovers and fridges were full of beer and cold turkey.
As Seamus Milne reports in the Guardian, the ‘swamping’ never materialised. It was, largely a figment of the tabloid imagination fuelled by desperate Westminster politicians looking for the nearest scapegoat for their own failed economics.
But the stories we are being told matter, even if they have no basis in reality. The aim, Milne writes, was to promise a ‘crackdown':
Migrants will be charged for emergency hospital treatment at their bedside, the government announced – but that won’t apply to EU citizens. The Daily Mail and 90 Conservative activists begged David Cameron to invoke an EU “safeguard clause” to keep the curbs on Bulgarian and Romanian employment in place, while Tory ministers claimed they were being blocked by the Liberal Democrats. It was grandstanding nonsense, as the European commission would have had to agree to it.
Hope Not Hate
There’s a convergence of three obsessions of what used to be called the hard-right and is now just mainstream Westminister politics: first an obsession with Europe as enemy and threat to be defended against, second a completely disproportionate focus on ‘benefits’ (see infographic) and thirdly an ongoing phobia about immigration and ‘alien cultures’.
Whilst this is routinely played across the media as a ‘British debate’ it’s nothing of the sort and it’s a narrative we should guard against.
On immigration we have quite different needs, on race and multiculturalism we have quite different experiences and on attitudes to Europe we have different outlooks.
In February 2013, Ipsos Mori polling showed us that 53% of Scots would vote for the UK to remain part of the EU, with 34% opposed, while 61% think an independent Scotland should be an EU member. A 19% margin in favour of the EU in Scotland, and an 8% margin against in England.
Further data from Ipsos Mori gives strong evidence of a significant divergence of opinion between the two nations. In a similar poll in November, 50% of people in England said they would vote to leave the EU compared with 42% wanting to remain.
It was odd then to be lectured on Twitter by Sunder Katwala, Director of @britishfuture an organisation which aims ‘to deepen public conversation on identity, immigration, integration and fairness':
“Scots are more less EU sceptic but rather more UKIP-averse than pro-EU as such”.
I don’t know what that means either.
I do know that Channel 4 News tonight reported:
“Eggs thrown at Roma family homes in Derby as immigration hysteria grows. Local MP says Government’s tougher rules are “dangerous.”
– and I do know that UKIP polled 0.28% at the last election in Scotland.
We need to re-articulate and give voice to a real openness and be proud of this. We need to develop a politics of hope not hate. The White Paper states:
One of the major gains from independence for Scotland will be responsibility for our own immigration policy. Currently immigration is a reserved matter, and the Westminster Government’s policy for the whole of the UK is heavily influenced by conditions in the south east of England. Westminster has also adopted an aggressive approach to immigration, asylum seekers and refugees, culminating in the recent controversy over advertisements to tell people to leave the UK and “go home”.
Scotland has a different need for immigration than other parts of the UK. Healthy population growth is important for Scotland’s economy. One of the main contributors to Scotland’s population growth is migrants who choose to make Scotland their home. In future our enhanced economic strategy will also do more to encourage young people to build their lives and careers within Scotland and to attract people to live in Scotland.
Scotland’s differing demographic and migration needs mean that the current UK immigration system has not supported Scotland’s migration priorities.
I’ve heard little debate and discussion on this important subject. This is as much about the kind of economy we want to create as the smokescreen of culture and religion.
Paul Mason puts it well:
The point is, we have choices. If you don’t want to live in a country that’s a magnet for low-skilled people, then don’t sign treaties that give free movement of labour with countries where they live. And maybe make it harder to set up businesses whose only rationale is to pay people below the minimum of what an ordinary worker could survive on.
That would mean breaking an economic habit that seems ingrained in the low-value end of UK business. But it might be more constructive than deploying a horde of reporters to chase planes arriving from Transylvania, and stigmatising thousands of hardworking people with every legal right to be here.
Wrestling this debate away from the tabloid gutter and the Westminster blame-game is key to setting out our own values and priorities for the years ahead.