On the train coming back from London today, I had a great conversation with two retired Guyanese nurses, who were on their way to Chesterfield, where they had once done their training.
Both of them left Guyana many years ago, as so many Guyanese did during the disastrous Burnham decades, so we had a lot to talk about, regarding places and people in the country where I once lived as a kid. They had spent their lives working for the NHS, and they were deeply committed to the institution in which they had spent their working lives, and lamented the decline of the bedside-oriented school of nursing by bureaucratic micro-managed ‘reforms’ that forced nurses to spend more time filling in forms and trying to hit targets than caring for patients.
With their old world grace, charm, and humanity, they made me wonder once again why soldiers, rather than nurses, are invariably placed in the category ‘our finest men and women’. Both of them had once been ‘migrants’, who a depraved public ‘debate’ about immigration has reduced to the status of generic intruders, predators and parasites.
In recent weeks we have had an absolute barrage of this vicious drivel, in the shape of an entirely manufactured scare campaign about a supposed mass influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants hellbent on usurping ‘our’ jobs and services.
As always, this campaign has been spearheaded by a degenerate xenophobic rightwing press that is devoid of honour or decency, with a slew of deliberately incendiary headlines on ‘the battle to keep out EU migrants’ (The Express) and ‘ Germany rejects Romania and Bulgaria’s bid to roam Europe without a passport amid fears of “immigrant invasion” (The Daily Mail).’
If the ‘journalists’ who construct these stories are to be believed, Rumania and Bulgaria are inhabited not by workers, but by an army of scroungers whose ‘bid to roam Europe’ heralds an all-out immigrant assault on ‘our’ benefits – the same benefits that are being ruthlessly stripped away by the government – with the support of these same newspapers that propose to defend them against the immigrant hordes.
We have seen this kind of talk many times before, in the depictions of Caribbean immigrants in the 50s, in the Ugandan Asians and Kenyans in the early 70s, in the ‘siege of Dover’ in the late 1990s. The ‘immigrants’ may change, but the British right remains essentially the same.
And how have our politicians responded to this latest panic? Naturally they have gone along with it. First there was talk of the UK government planning a ‘negative advertising campaign’ to try and put Rumanians and Bulgarians off coming here. Then Lord Snooty tried to win the Eastleigh byelection and take the wind out of Ukip’s sails by promising to prevent Rumanian and Bulgarian migrants from accessing benefits.
These efforts failed, but that failure is almost certain to galvanize Cameron to intensify the anti-immigrant rhetoric, regardless of what he may say about not ‘ lurching to the right.’
And now Ed Miliband has come lumbering into the ‘debate’ with an immaculately-timed party political broadcast on Labour’s ‘One Nation immigration policy’ to be broadcast tonight, in which he will once again bow his head about Labour not ‘getting it right’ on immigration, because it allowed ‘too many low-skilled workers’ into the country and undercut local people.’
Well yes, Labour did ‘allow’ that to happen, because Britain is a member of the EU and is not legally able to stop people from coming to the UK to look for work. Many migrants found work, because the economy was booming and there were many low-skilled jobs available that Britons did not want to do, and when those jobs dried up, tens of thousands of migrants left or returned to their countries.
It may be that foreign migrant labour ‘undercut’ some workers in some sectors – something that never interested Labour too much when it was in power – but their presence also contributed to economic growth and therefore created new jobs, and their right to look for work in the UK also had – and has – reciprocal rights that allow British workers to go and look for work in Europe.
Labour knew all this when it was in office, yet still tried to pander to rightwing anti-immigrant rhetoric with lots of ‘tough’ talk about crackdowns and deportations of ‘illegal immigrants’, and a raft of draconian and punitive measures against asylum seekers.
Now it’s looking to win votes away from the Conservatives and Ukip by addressing public ‘concerns’ about immigration, which essentially concede many of the arguments the right has been making about immigrant ‘invasions’ and an ‘open-door’ policy.
A more courageous and truly progressive party would take these ‘concerns’ apart, and expose the lies and phobias that surround them by placing solidarity at the heart of the debate about immigration, and by pointing out that the greatest danger to the rights of foreign and British workers – and to ‘our’ services, does not stem from immigration, but from the neo-liberal economic model that has reaped such a disastrous harvest in the last five years.
But then, they pretty much supported that model when they were in power and they remain committed to it now. And so Miliband, like Lord Snooty and his pals, prefer to talk about immigration as if it were a problem.
But the real problem is the shocking combination of inhumanity, paranoia, selfishness and sheer dishonesty that underpins the depictions of immigrants like the women I met today by the Mail, Ukip, Migration Watch and the Tory right, in a public ‘debate’ that gets ever more shameful and repellent.