The paradox of the Brexiteers' immigration fears

by The Listener / 28 March, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Brexit

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Brexit may have been driven by the perceived dangers of immigration, but a new poll shows more Britons see immigration as a positive than a negative.

As New Zealanders redouble their focus on unity and tolerance in the wake of the Christchurch mosque atrocities, the United Kingdom’s painful journey from Brexit to the shores of Wrecks-it shows what can happen when racial intolerance is allowed to fester.

The UK risks being stranded indefinitely in the European Union departure lounge after a group of Prime Minister Theresa May’s own MPs denied her the support to take her plans forward. Only further intra-party betrayals can spare Britons another year’s delay. Either way, resentments will continue to build.

Far more than economic sovereignty, or even the many people left behind in several decades of economic change, the UK’s decision to leave the EU was a protest about the perceived dangers of immigration. The UK’s National Centre for Social Research, among others, has confirmed that immigration fears were the biggest driver of the pro-Brexit vote. Such was the culture shock when, from 2004, the UK opened its labour market to a greatly expanded EU and hundreds of thousands of Europeans were free to work and settle there that a trend to blame the influx for most social and economic ills built up to become a political rip tide.

The statistics and the facts did not, however, bear out all these fears, and now the balance of public opinion has reversed. An Ipsos Mori poll in March found more Britons believe immigration is a positive than a negative – nearly half of those surveyed – compared with just a quarter believing it negative. The survey, of nearly 1500 Britons, found the country was now among the more immigration-positive nations in the EU grouping and the wider world. The same survey in 2011 found 64% of respondents thought negatively about immigration.

It’s a cruel paradox that the UK is putting itself through ever more desperate contortions to leave the EU even while the main impetus for it has abated to a minority concern.

Beyond the interminable procedural maze, Brexit’s most troubling aspect remains that immigrants were so easy to blame – more so than the politicians whose decisions let them in. Immigrants were plainly not the cause of the massive social dislocation brought on by the demise of industries such as ship building and coal mining, or later disruptions such as globalisation and e-commerce.

But, since both major political parties were responsible for the economic reforms that wrought generational unemployment and a feeling of underclass status in many regions, it was hard to find a consensus on political culprits. It seemed easier to look outward, at the coincidental influx of highly visible workers coming in from Europe, at the same time as various Middle Eastern and African crises brought surges of readily identifiable foreigners in as refugees.

It’s all too human to be uneasy about change and, sadly, for groups feeling vulnerable to blame others. What’s less forgivable is the way political leaders exacerbate these fears. Most egregious was the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip), which campaigned on flagrantly divisive, inflammatory rhetoric that immigrants were enemy invaders, and that the EU’s no-borders ambition was really about annihilating British culture and identity.

Ukip’s support has since atrophied, despite its strong identification with Brexit. But other politicians are culpable for the lack of leadership on the coin’s flip-side, by failing to ensure the influx of immigrants was seen in its true context and proportion. Successive governments thought it sufficient to say, “Immigration will be good for you.” But such rapid, visible change takes a better sales job than that. People deserve reassurance. Repeated surveys of migration around the world show it grows the economic pie over time and that most immigrants become a net economic positive inside a generation. That’s beside the priceless intangible benefits of new cultures, food, skills and perspectives.

Other than in the extreme “no-go” zones of some European cities, incoming cultures do not displace existing resident cultures, but greatly add to them.

That has overwhelmingly been New Zealand’s experience, which was why it so shocked us that an avowed white supremacist should choose one of our cities for his pitiless act of terror. The mishandled seeds of Brexit were germinated in the same subculture of hatred.

As we watch the UK’s Brexit pratfalls, what we’re really seeing is the toxic result of groundless fear, by turns neglected and nurtured by poor political leadership.

This editorial was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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