Monday, 19 May 2014

UKIP's cynical focus on immigration is handing victory in any in/out referendum to pro-Europeans


We were discussing anti-social behaviour at a Bradford Council scrutiny meeting. I forget whether this was in the context of us reviewing policies and strategies around alcohol and drugs or merely the periodic receiving of crime statistics from West Yorkshire police. Now, my views on these matters are pretty well-known - the idea of 'anti-social behaviour' was created to provide a means to criminalise behaviour that hitherto wasn't criminal and police crime statistics are a work of fiction.

Given that this is multicultural Bradford, matters related to ethnic minorities arose - from recollection on the back of a remark from a police officer that Roma families liked to gather together outside and drink. And that this caused a problem for the, largely South Asian, communities into which they had moved. This view was endorsed by the Committee chairman - a Labour councillor - in a set of remarks littered with "they" and "these people".

Now I don't for a second think Cllr Malik meant ill by his remarks - he was echoing genuine community disgruntlement. It isn't clear whether this is about the behaviour - a community that doesn't drink (or at least not openly) might understandably be disapproving of public drinking - or about the arrival of a new, culturally-distinct group into a mono-cultural place. But the reality is that the arrival of people for whom drinking beer sat on a town centre bench or walking down the street is normal behaviour proved a shock (as an aside, on a recent visit to Cologne I was struck by how many young - and not-so-young - people could be seen drinking in public).

It's easy for me, sat in a village ten miles from inner city Bradford, to dismiss such stereotyping - to clamber manfully up onto the moral high ground and shout "you racist" at people like Cllr Malik. But does that help? Should we not rather respond to the concerns themselves - not, as some seem to want, by heavy-handed policing targeted at these obviously criminal gangs (I mean they drink in the street and walk about in family groups - definitely criminal behaviour there) but by being clear about the boundaries for behaviour. Spending a bit of time talking to them about what's allowed and what isn't allowed - and suggesting that they try to respect their neighbours.

It won't be easy managing the integration of these new communities into the weird place that is Bradford - there'll be fights, there'll be misunderstandings, there'll be cries of racism galore - but at some point in the future, just as happened with the past arrivals from Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic States, these groups will be part of the place, will be talking with Yorkshire accents and cheering on English football teams. Young men whose families are from Slovakia, from Moldova and from Romania will be seen drinking lager in curry houses and chasing girls whose Mum was from Ireland or grandfather from Pakistan.

To get there we've got to stop calling people racist at the drop of a hat, we've got to stop pretending that everyone from a place is a criminal (or indeed, not a criminal) and we've got to recognise that it's a messy process littered with ignorance, assumption and the use of political power to prefer one group above another. At the end we'll be a better place - better for Polish sausage and beer, better for Romanian wine and better for another extension to Bradford's tapestry adding these latest arrivals to Germans, Jews, Pakistanis, Poles, Indians and Africans. Plus of course the immigrants from elsewhere in these isles - from Ireland, Scotland and, in my case, London.

The European Parliament elections have seen a set of national campaigns hi-jacked by this debate - instead of a discussion about the EU, we've had a series of staged rows about immigration with loud asides alleging racism in all directions. Or rather "I'm not calling it racism because racists might not vote for me but it's a bit off colour". Perhaps the most egregious was from the Green Party who seem to think it clever or cool to blame a minor (and alleged - remember that police crime statistics are a fiction) rise in 'hate crime' on another political party.  All this does precisely nothing to help us deal with the influx of immigrants - and dear reader, they're here and they're staying.

I don't win any political friends for saying that our attitude to immigration is antediluvian but I do think that this EU election campaign, by making out that opposition to the EU is somehow about racism, hasn't helped the campaign to leave. If the only reason for getting out of the EU is that we won't have those pesky foreigners coming here any more, then we can give up on any hope of leaving - the British people aren't so intolerant. And we now know that those of us who want a free trade nation looking to sell our genius wherever it is wanted, and know that the EU stops this from happening - we'll be painted as racist authoritarians by the enthusiasts for the European project.

I recall Ted Heath telling a story from the 1976 referendum about a well-known left-wing opponent of the Common Market. This socialist grandee arrived at a televised debate to see the pro- and anti- Europe speakers, his eyes scanned across the panel and he said something like: "the camera will pan across Heath, Callaghan and a man from the CBI speaking in favour and then the other side - Powell, and Teddy Taylor. I'm not appearing with those nutters."

This sums up the problem in any referendum campaign - because UKIP has made it, for reasons of cynical political expediency, a debate about immigration plenty of people will do what that socialist grandee did and sit the campaign out. With the result that the real debate, the one about free trade, free speech and free enterprise, won't happen. And the pro-Europeans will win.


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