Author: JOYCE MCMILLAN
We have lost an essential bulwark against foul, reactionary and proto-fascistic politics, writes Joyce McMillan.
When I survey the current grim state of European and US politics, it’s surprising how often my mind drifts back to a single day in April 2010, when one mainstream leader of a Western democracy came to grief in a manner that somehow seems to sum up the key political dilemma of our times. I’m talking, of course, about former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and his ill-fated encounter, during the general election campaign of 2010, with a woman called Gillian Duffy, a lifelong Labour supporter who, during a walkabout in Rochdale, offered various thoughts about problems of crime and employment in her home town, and then moved on to the subject of “all these Eastern Europeans” – a problem of “too many people”, she said, mostly coming here just to claim benefits.
Her exchange with the Prime Minister was brief, and was of course followed by one of the most excruciating gaffes in British political history; back in his car, and unaware that his lapel microphone was still switched on, Gordon Brown described her as “some bigoted woman”, and then watched over the next few hours as what was left of his political career went up in smoke. The consensus about what had happened was instant and absolute. Gillian Duffy was not a bigot, the consensus said, and Gordon Brown was wrong to use the word about her. She was just a woman trying to raise legitimate concerns about immigration; and the fact that Britain’s political elite tended to dismiss such concerns as racism or bigotry signalled only the extent to which they were out of touch with ordinary people and their problems.
And over the next few years, not only in the UK but beyond, that consensus became part of a growing received wisdom which argued that anti-immigrant views must be heard, and that not to hear them and act on them is damaging to democracy, demonstrating contempt for those on the sharp end of the social changes brought by mass migration. If the phrase “legitimate concerns” was used once – by politicians of right, left and centre – it was used a thousand times; and the idea seemed to be that if the issue of immigration was freely discussed, then new and rational policies could be put in place, that would reassure the public and reduce tensions.
What is becoming increasingly evident, though, is that it hasn’t worked out like that. On the contrary, it seems that the more mainstream politicians move to accommodate and respond to anti-immigrant feeling, the stronger it becomes, and the more extreme in its demands. All across Europe and the United States, since the early years of this decade, politicians of the far right from UKIP to the German AfD have felt emboldened to make their case with a new and militant self-righteousness; and mainstream political parties – from the Conservativews in the UK to the US Republicans – have not been slow to make sharp rightward moves in response.
In that time, the British Labour Party has become so afraid of popular anti-immigrant feeling that it now dare not even oppose the looming disaster of Brexit; and Europe has become a continent of wealthy nations that would rather stand by and watch a huge, quiet holocaust on its southern borders – with almost 3,000 people each year dying in the Mediterranean in desperate efforts to reach our shores – than step up to our obligations in terms of the rights of refugees, and of common humanity.