Between 2001 and 2009, exponentially increasing mass migration was encouraged as part of a ‘deliberate’ political project by Labour Party leaders and the Performance and Innovation Institute think tank to, ‘rub the Right’s nose in diversity’ and catapult Britain into multicultural modernity. So claimed Andrew Neather, a speech writer who worked for Tony Blair and the Home Office, in his now immortalised interview with the Evening Standard.
Nervous about alienating their socially conservative base, the Labour spin machine kept its diversification policy from the public. After all, as Neather had wryly remarked, demographic transformation, ‘wasn't necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men's clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland’.
A Great British Conspiracy Theory
This wrangling now feels like a distant memory, in the halcyon pre-2008 days of rosy economic forecasts, and Chancellor Gordon Brown’s claimed Britain had transcended boom and bust, and we now live in what seems a more paranoid, unexplainable time.
During economic geopolitical and economic turmoil, anecdotes about mass immigration as economically and socially destructive become more seductive and divisive. I’m inclined to agree with the Telegraph columnist Fraser Nelson that Neather’s claims were far-fetched. However, I also see that they’ve been shaped by other journalists such as Peter Hitchens into the great British conspiracy theory that is widely, that left wing cultural-relativist intellectuals, neoliberal financiers and gutless post-colonial technocrats have opened Britain’s borders. The flood of migration has economically and culturally fragmented rather than enriched the lives of British citizens.
Speaking the Post-Truth
But in this age of post-truth, such narratives are emotive and dangerous. So are we really living in a dystopian ‘Neatherland’ created by technocrats who abhor the very idea of our nation-state? I argue that no, we are subject to greater global circuits of migration and money that have gathered pace for several centuries. As travel becomes cheaper and climate change proliferates, mass immigration is inevitable. At the same time, economic and political power is slowly shifting from West to East. By accepting the reality of mass immigration, and looking at how we can harness the people as well as the products of globalisation, we can create a global Britain that can adapt to these seismic shifts.
The June 2017 election
Theresa May and the conservative party look set to win the June 2017 general election despite May’s uncharismatic television performance on 29 May. In a campaign largely focused on Brexit negotiations, the threat of Scottish independence, and with the horror of ISIS and the Manchester attack, English exceptionalism and national security will naturally take precedence in the minds of many floating voters.
But immigration is still problematic. In her tenure as Home Secretary, the 2010 and 2015 pledges of the Cameron government to reduce EU and non-Eu immigration to under 100,000 proved to be fantastical. May’s pledge to achieve this my ending free movement and removing Britain from the single market was branded by Paxman as ‘economically illiterate’ to roars of laughter. The IPPR claims rapidly cutting immigration will do structural economic damage, and jeopardise the living standards of JAMS and precariat whom immigration restriction supposedly protects.
Immigration panic from the age of Empire to the age of Anger
We need to understand and solve the British fear of immigration. The past provides some help. Immigration panic, regardless of the numbers involved, has deep lineage in Britain and its empire. The Aliens Act of 1906 was enacted to stop the influx of Eastern European Jews fleeing Russian persecution, and the 1905 election was dominated by fury at the presence small numbers of Chinese labourers in Britain and South Africa. Race riots rocked the country in 1919 and thousands of Chinese and West Indian sailors were forcibly repatriated.
Reasons and solutions
It is true that current levels are unprecedented, but why can’t we break the cycle of hysteria and weigh up immigration policy rationally? Deep down we know the answer lies in the inability of the present settlement to offer us a bright future. According to pop economists like Naomi Klein in ‘The Shock Doctrine’, the adoption of the ideas of Chicago economist Milton Friedman created the self-interested Western consumer, the drastic shrinkage of state power and services, and the cult of the market.
As Pankaj Mishra argues in ‘Age of Anger’, this hyper consumerism, mimicry of the rich, is unachievable, creating what Friedrich Nietszche called ‘ressentiment’. This existential rage at unfulfilled desire we re-direct against immigrants and other groups through social media and other platforms. Our pain will only ease when we talk honestly about how to flow with globalisation, and British parties of all persuasions so far lack the will or ideas to do this.
Dr Robert Brown is an Early Career Researcher with a PhD in British and Transimperial History from the University of Birmingham in 2017.
He has an interest in British politics, social policy, and the teaching of British and Colonial History in the British and American education systems.