Anti-immigrant politics was not invented by Ukip
The other night I found myself on the high table at All Souls College, Oxford beside a young man who if many modern politicians are to be believed should not be there.
He was a Pole, or more accurately a Brit-Pole who spoke not a word of Polish. He had won a prize fellowship to All Souls but somewhere in his family past there had been an immigration to Britain.
Yet to listen to Conservative and Labour ministers and their shadows trying desperately to respond to the rise of anti-immigrant emotions incarnated by Ukip’s success in ballot boxes this year this brilliant young intellectual, or his forebears should not really be in our country.
When I began my political life in Birmingham in the 1970s, the anti-immigrant passions were associated with Enoch Powell who was also the first heavyweight Eurosceptic. Four decades later hostility to the EU and hostility to foreigners living here have fused into a toxic politics that no-one dares challenge.
It isn’t new. In the 1930s the Church of Scotland’s Church and Nation Committee called for unemployed Catholics to be sent back to Ireland, a country most had no contact with as their parents or grandparents had arrived in Scotland decades or a century before.
The Orange and Protestant Political Party standing on an anti-immigrant platform won a Lanarkshire seat in the Commons in 1923. In the 1930s anti-Irish Catholic parties – the Scottish Protestant League in Glasgow and Protestant Action in Edinburgh -took up to a third of the votes in local council elections just as Ukip did in May this year.
From my earliest days in politics – I stood for Labour in the 1974 general election – the issue of immigration has been a doorstep constant. When I became MP for Rotherham in 1994 I heard on every canvassing round moans, often unpleasantly racist, about the “Pakis” – the 8,000 strong Kashmiri community in the town. As asylum seekers from different conflict zones were dispersed across the country – Kosovars, Somalis, Iraqis amongst others – I was told endlessly that they were sponging off the taxpayer and “should be shipped home” just like the Irish in Scotland were meant to be deported in the 1930s.
There are 1 million Romanians in Italy and 34 per cent of the Swiss population is either a new or first generation immigrant. Each richer EU country gets workers from countries they have links to. 250,000 Polish soldiers and their families settled in Britain after 1945. Already by 2000, Easyjet and Ryanair were flying daily between big British cities and main Polish cities. The decision of the Labour government in 2004 to make legal the new EU citizens who came to work in the UK ensured that all the Poles had to pay taxes, National Insurance, and rented homes from British landlords as well as filling up catholic churches. Germany and France tried to maintain controls against new EU citizens but soon gave up and copied Britain.
Labour sold 495,000 council homes between 1997 and 2009 but in Yorkshire built just 24. So the sense of the local working class – many of whose parents were inward immigrants in previous generations – that the new incomers were a threat to jobs, housing or social benefits was strong.
Yet every study shows that the EU workers make a massive net contribution to government revenue. There are about 100,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries including many dependents who arrived for arranged-forced marriage purposes or are elderly and want to see out their days with family in Britain.
26 per cent of NHS hospital doctors are foreign and it seems perverse to attack immigration when without immigrants so much of our public services cannot function.
Many of the EU incomers are really “semigrants”. They come and work but fly back home regularly. More than 2 million Brits work in the EU and if the view promoted by many politicians that quotas should apply to Europeans in Britain than there will be nasty shock when EU nations reciprocate with quotas on Brits. 145,000 people arrive in Britain each year intending to stay here for more than 4 years. But 208,000 British citizens leave the UK each year intending to live and work abroad for more than four years.
Whenever there is unemployment, poverty, uneven distribution of national wealth, and local workers displaced by economic change, finding a scapegoat in the non-Brit – the Irish in the 1930s, the Poles more recently – is the first resort of the low-rent politician.
But finding high-vision politicians ready to stand up against these passions has always been a difficult search and never more so than today.
Denis MacShane is the former Minister for Europe