Immigration and racism

It was immigration that won it for the Brexiteers. Amongst the outers there are those who are offended by any loss of sovereignty and for whom there is no peace with the EU: they would be leavers whatever deal was offered. And there are those that are offended by 'EU Red Tape': many of these would be hard pressed to differentiate between that particular tape and the home grown variety. And there are those that simply wanted to kick the government - and putting the government's full weight behind the remain campaign made it a tempting target. And there are those who think that the EU is unreformable from inside and will only be a sinking ship with which Britain does not need to down. It is difficult not to have some sympathy with the last.

But the real issue was immigration and it was allowed to become so by the failure of the entire political and media class to address the specious assertion that all discussion of immigration was for racists and 'bigots' - pace Gordon Brown. The problem is that all racists talk a lot about immigration - but talking about immigration is not necessarily racist: it can, and should, be a discussion about resources and balance; well within the normal political discourse. This conflation of the two issues effectively shut down any discussion of immigration for nearly twenty years - with lamentable consequences.

Back in 2013, David Goodhart, the founder of Prospect Magazine wrote a book about immigration called The British Dream. He is no BNP figure - rather the opposite, a doyen of the intellectual centre left. In it he documented how millions of migrants came to this country with no discussion in Cabinet or Parliament about the consequences of such a large movement of people. There is an excellent case to be made for immigration - but nobody made it. It just happened. It is interesting that Goodhart's book was banned by Peter Florence from the Hay Festival - which simply amplified Goodhart's very point that this was not a discussion to be had at any level in 'polite' society.

The failure of the mainstream parties to engage in any debate has allowed Nigel Farage and his merry men in UKIP to insert themselves into the political process and harness the grievances of those people whose lives have been changed by immigration - allowing it to be the principle issue for many in the Brexit campaign. It was because UKIP was so on the ascendancy that Cameron was forced to offer a referendum, and it was this promise that won him the election. It turned out to be a Faustian pact - but he had no other realistic choice at the time, though it's easy to be wise after the event

If the elites of all parties had had the intellectual and moral courage to face down the conflation of racism and discussion of immigration - and had conducted a sensible dialogue about the benefits and consequences of large scale immigration, we almost certainly would not be where we are now. 

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