Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Tory Politics of Immigration

Before Christmas there was a lot of fire and fury about the government's disgraceful asylum scheme. Proving the truism that there's no such thing as a Tory rebel, Rishi Sunak's revolting right took their seats and ... and ... our would-be outlaws all sat on their hands. Led into battle by Fiery Francois and Battleaxe Berry, the so-called rebels - all 40 of them - turned tail and ran. They promised to reconsider their position when the Rwanda bill returned for its third reading, and that moment is is almost upon us.

You'll recall that what went through the Commons in December is an abomination. It unilaterally declares Rwanda a safe country regardless of evidence to the contrary (Burundi hasn't just closed its Rwandan border to inconvenience Sunak's schemes), and magically exempts Britain from international obligations the government has not withdrawn from. Reader, it does not exempt Britain from any treaty is it party to. But this is not enough for the whingeing right. The winters of Tory discontent are now claiming 60 MPs are poised to rebel at the next stage on Wednesday, and have been joined by the always appalling Brendan Clarke-Smith and Lee Anderson. Whether it's "principles" or an eye to post-politics media careers that caused them to resign is not for me to judge. Evidently, this morning's Times, splash reporting that Sunak is drafting in 150 judges to clear the Rwanda appeals backlog has not assuaged the "genuine concerns" that the policy could gum up the courts.

In a pre-festive smug-in with Ed Balls, George Osborne observed that "Rishi Sunak's big claim was, ‘I've come after the chaos of Boris Johnson and the chaos of Liz Truss ... I've stabilised things.’ He can't now claim anymore to have stabilised things. His government is fragmenting around this immigration issue." The broken clock strikes! Thinking back to the Tory bin fire last time, Robert Jenrick resigned as Immigration minister. And the then recently disposed Suella Braverman used her much hyped Commons "revenge speech" to lie her head off about refugees and make a pitch for the leadership of the BNP. Speculation about no confidence letters carpeting Graham Brady's hallway excited the Mail's comment pages, and Tory rose against Tory beneath relatively balanced coverage on Conservative Home. And now, with an election possibly only months away, the guns turn inward as loyalist and rebel take their potshots at each other.

Why are the Tories coming to blows over an issue they ordinarily agree on and have historically owned? And why does it occupy this position in their range of concerns?

For as long as the modern Conservative Party has existed, it has benefited from press hysteria about immigration. In substance, the anti-Irish arguments Engels dealt with in The Condition of the Working Class in England haven't changed at all these last 180 years. For right wingers, foreigners have been constructed as Others whom Britons are invited to define themselves against. Whether as colonial subjects requiring the firm hand of civilising white saviours or dangerous arrivals swamping British identity with alien cultures, while taking our jobs and cashing our welfare payments, racialised minorities have provided many a Tory leader with the ideological cement from which a viable electoral coalition can be constructed. And because the press never stop ranting about immigration, asylum, or boats in the Channel it's never far from the top of voters' concerns. As we have seen, the Tories don't possess a positive programme. Last year when Sunak said he was only going to deliver the barest minimum, immigration was one of the few measures - along with inflation and reducing NHS waiting times (a shaming failure you'll never find backbench Tories instigating rebellions about) - he invited us to judge his government by. Boxed in on all sides by the collapse in the party's support, immigration is a competency they have to be seen to get right. If they can, everything is going to be fine.

But, again, this doesn't properly answer the question. To get there we have to jump into the Tory imaginary and think about where the Tories and right wing politics have triumphed in recent times. As as been documented in many places, not least a a certain book, the Tories came to power in 1979 because Thatcher's leadership intersected with the right wing scaremongering of her day. The swelling pustule of National Front support was popped as the Tories fashioned themselves as guardians of Britain's borders with promises to crack down on immigration. Fast forward to 2016, every Tory Brexiteer knows the referendum wasn't won because of arguments about sovereignty. The core support for the no vote was mobilised explicitly on anti-immigration lines. They tapped into it again with Boris Johnson and his single-minded Get Brexit Done position which, nudge nudge wink wink, was about hitting out at undesirables and keeping the foreigners out. A Tory could make the case that anti-immigration politics plainly put is the root of right wing success. And when the Tories are not strong on immigration, such as John Major overseeing post-92 free movement while we were in the EU, or Dave and his liberal touchy-feely Toryism, or Theresa May and her weakness leading to the farce of the 2019 EU elections, the Tories have paid the price. With Dave, UKIP moved in what should be Tory turf and menaced the party from the right in ways it had never been previously. With May, the ground was conceded to the Brexit Party. And now Sunak is feeling pressure as Reform, who are flattered by recent polling despite having no ground game. If you don't look too deeply into the problems afflicting Tory support, such a position makes immediate practical sense. Especially if you're a Tory MP whose political universe is bounded by a frothing constituency association, ranting colleagues in the chamber, right wing bag carriers staffing one's office, and the speak-your-branes provided by a nexus of The Mail, The Sun, and The Telegraph.

This is why immigration matters so much to the Tories. It has become totemic and fetishistic, a way of reducing the complexity of past triumphs and tragedies to an easily digestible form. It has sedimented into their collective disposition and is thought of by all right wingers as their magic sauce. If they can get the recipe right and pour generous quantities onto whatever is served up in their manifesto they will win. Hence why, despite the party ignoring the economy as the issue ordinary folk care about the most, individual Tory MPs facing the end of their political careers are vociferously and hysterically tearing themselves apart and cratering their chances because, for them, Rwanda is the only road to political redemption they can see. Their behaviour is far from bewildering considered in its own terms. But because they're trapped within it, when the big defeat comes to mash the Tories up any idea they're going to change the tune in opposition is as fanciful as their changing course now.


Anonymous said...

Q: Is 'immigration' the Tories' 'one club' economic policy? There's a real 'lump of labour' vibe to so much of Brexit as regards foreign nationals and UK employment.

Blissex said...

«racialised minorities have provided many a Tory leader with the ideological cement»

Our bloggers as well as wokesters and anti-wokesters seem to have failed to notice that between 2004 and 2020 SIX MILLION WHITE EAST EUROPEANS (that is, bigoted white supremacists, many of them racists) have settled in the UK, and yet part of the brexit victory was due to opposition to the immigration of all those millions of whites.

I wonder how making the UK population significantly whiter could have generated racist opposition...

Zoltan Jorovic said...

@Blissex, Here's a question, can a bigoted white supremacist not be a racist? It seems you think so given you say "bigoted white supremacists, many of them racists". That bizarre claim aside, does it not occur to you that calling all Eastern Europeans "bigoted white supremacists" is, apart from outrageous, about as clear an example of racism as it is possible to give? It is certainly a disgustingly offensive slur that I take great exception to.

Blissex said...

«yet part of the brexit victory was due to opposition to the immigration of all those millions of whites. I wonder how making the UK population significantly whiter could have generated racist opposition...»

A significant number of UK citizens with people-of-colour background voted for Brexit to oppose that immigration of millions of whites, because they argued that free movement gave an undue advantage ("disparate impact") to EU, therefore almost entirely white, immigrants over non-EU, therefore almost entirely people-of-colour, immigrants. It is an old story:

The EEC was, in Castle’s view, ‘a circle of privilege’, a club of rich, white countries looking out for themselves. As Cabinet discussed joining EEC in 1967, Castle erupted: ‘Let us realise that we are deciding on the destruction of the Commonwealth: not only through the abandonment of [trade] preferences but above all as a result of the immigration priority we shall have to give to the [Europeans]’. [...] Castle asked, ‘And what kind of internationalism is it that says that henceforth this country must give priority to a Frenchman over an Indian, a German over an Australian, an Italian over a Malaysian? This isn’t the language of internationalism… It is Euro-jingoism.’

Blissex said...

«calling all Eastern Europeans "bigoted white supremacists" is, apart from outrageous, about as clear an example of racism as it is possible to give»

It is impossible to be a racist against whites, and all whites are intrinsically bigoted white supremacists, according to "woke" conventional wisdom. You should read again Robin DiAngelo books or Ibram Kendi. :-)

“The problem with white people,” she says, “is that they just don’t listen. In my experience, day in and day out, most white people are absolutely not receptive to finding out their impact on other people. There is a refusal to know or see, or to listen or hear, or to validate.”

“Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm”