We’ve just had another bout of political shadow boxing about immigrants. It tells us more about the superficiality of politicians than about immigration. UKIP makes populist demands, the Conservatives do all they can to match them, and Labour struggles to play catch-up.
Whatever the Conservatives do, UKIP can go one step further and defy the Government to catch up. None of them proposes constructive responses to the huge numbers of people desperately needing somewhere to live. Instead they vie with each other to be nastier than each other, in the hope of gaining votes.
A few days ago Zoe Williams made incisive criticisms of the debate:
The political stage is peopled with characters who wouldn’t get past a script meeting in Emmerdale: the woman who has an abortion at 28 weeks because she’s suddenly not that into the idea; the perfectly well person who would rather fake debilitating depression than get a job; the homo economicus who goes to a food bank even though he can afford food, because it’s free.
In other words the public political debate is not addressing real people:
What scheming fainéant [idler] uproots himself, slogs across Europe to forge a new life in an unfamiliar land, just to be work-shy on somebody’s sofa? It doesn’t make sense on a human level. How does the bold, optimistic person who took the risk become the lazy, withdrawn person who’s on the make?
It is as though the main political parties cannot face reality:
The immigrant of David Cameron’s imagination, who roams the continent looking for the taxpayers who will most generously fund his idleness, doesn’t exist. The strongest the Labour party has been, in its alarmingly mild response to a wave of sudden, strident xenophobia, is to point out that the numbers are wrong.
Of course there is an election coming up; but if this is all we get from politicians, no wonder so many people despise them. It is as though they are stopping the clocks, putting their fingers in their ears and refusing to accept what is happening.
What is happening is that huge numbers of people are desperate to find somewhere to live, so desperate that they risk their lives in countless ways – like those overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean. Any serious attempt to tackle immigration must ask why this is happening, and address the causes.
There are three main causes. First, war. Wars always create refugees. Is the British Government working towards a more peaceful world with fewer wars? No. After the two world wars we had a period of internationalism and helped set up peace-making organisations like the League of Nations and United Nations. The EU began as one of these, a project of working together for the good of all. Now, national governments pride themselves on promoting their national interests without regard for other nations. Britain is one of the worst, with its enthusiasm for selling weapons to oppressive dictatorships.
Second, climate change. Increasingly, parts of the world which were once fertile can no longer sustain a population. People have to move elsewhere. Again, if we ask what the British Government is doing about it, the answer has to be that they are making the situation worse. Concern for the environment, famously advocated by David Cameron with the help of some huskies before the 2010 General Election, has been well and truly trodden underfoot.
Third, poverty. The present British Government has dramatically increased the polarisation of wealth: the rich have become richer, the poor poorer. The international trend has been the same. As more and more of the world’s land is owned by large companies who have little or no interest in its inhabitants, people get driven out of their homelands.
These are the real causes of the growing desperation of migrants. Any government which seriously wants to solve the immigration problem must reverse these trends. It must collaborate with other countries to create a more peaceful world, and that means giving up the cult of profiteering at all costs. It must stop doing the things that cause pollution and climate change, and allow nature to repair the damage. And it must reverse the inequalities of wealth which drive people to leave home in search of a living.
In all three cases present British Government policy, far from addressing the situation, is making it worse. It has itself to blame for the growing numbers of migrants. Many other governments are doing much the same, but Britain is one of the worst. Yet, apart from the Green Party, the political opposition is encouraging them to carry on. Perhaps this is because, in all three cases, big business makes big profits out of carrying on like this.
So the recent debate about immigration seems an appropriate successor to the Emily Thornberry’s tweet: lots of public mutual recriminations, lots of cheap debating points, over nothing. Next May, at the General Election, will we elect whoever made the last good debating point? Or will we somehow, against all the odds, choose something better?