Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 9 June 2024

SYED AT LONDON TIMES MAKES A STRONG ARGUMENT WE HAVE ADVANCED FOR YEARS

Farage is a snake, but if we were honest on migration he’d have no fangs

On Tuesday to the end-of-the-pier show in Clacton, where the newly crowned leader of Reform, Nigel Farage, did a passing impression of a vaudevillian seaside act of yore (Max Bygraves did one of his first sets at the now demolished local theatre) as he announced he was standing for parliament again. “Do you want me?” he said, flashing his trademark grin and gesturing in a pantomime kind of way. “Oh yes we do!”

Hordes of journalists, camera crews and podcasters (including Emily Maitlis and Jon Sopel from The News Agents) were there to witness Farage and analyse his appeal. For many in the centre ground the answer is obvious: he draws his success from the bigotry, racism and gullibility on the fringes of polite society. Alastair Campbell has called him a “dangerous demagogue”, and on the radio last week a former adviser to David Cameron contrasted the “superficial showman” with the statesmanship of his own former boss. In The Times Daniel Finkelstein said Farage promised “chaos”, unlike the sensible Sunak.

Permit me to offer a different interpretation of the man who has arguably exerted more influence on British politics than anyone else over the past two decades, despite not winning a seat, and who is set to be a protagonist in the fight for the soul of the Tory party after the election, regardless of whether he wins in Clacton. Farage draws his power not principally from racism (as the son of an immigrant, I can testify that Britain has made great strides on bigotry) or gullibility. Rather, he draws it from deceit.

I am not talking about his own deceit, mind you, although he is more than capable of it. I am talking about the duplicity of the very people who now castigate him: the acolytes and promoters of Tony Blair, Cameron and the others who have held power these past few decades. I say this having gone back to the main party manifestos during the period of Farage’s rise and what they said about the issue he has made his own: immigration. And, as you might expect, and as Farage has consistently claimed, I saw lie after lie.

Don’t, for the moment, consider whether mass immigration is a good or bad thing; instead focus on a point that I hope we can all — left, right, rich, poor, black, white — agree on: the importance of truth-telling. It was Aristotle, after all, who intimated that without some minimum level of candour a polity cannot survive.

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Now, consider that Blair said in 1997 that he would ensure “firm control … properly enforced” — and then presided over an intake of 633,000 between 1998 and 2001. In 2005 he said that “only skilled workers will be allowed to settle long term” and promised “an end to chain migration” — and then net migration reached over quarter of a million despite a deep recession, not least because of movement from the new EU states. The government claimed this would be a trickle of 13,000 migrants a year; it turned out to be 1,500 per cent higher.

But if this was merely deceitful, it is difficult to locate the term for what followed. In 2010, 2015 and 2017 the Tories promised to cut immigration to the tens of thousands. In every manifesto. In ink. What happened? Immigration rose to an average of 300,000 a year over the period, totalling over 1.4 million for 2022-23 — a period in which free movement had ended and a high proportion of the intake were dependants of low-wage workers from non-European nations.

People often wave such figures away, saying: “Oh, Britain has always been a nation of immigrants”, which is perfectly true. But if you look at a graph of inflows over the past thousand years, let alone the past hundred, this represents a spike of an unprecedented kind, something that will echo decades — perhaps centuries — into the future. Again, whether or not you think this inflow is overall a good or bad thing, you can’t deny that it has altered the complexion of the UK in ways both subtle and profound.

Now consider another trend over roughly the same period: trust in politics has plummeted to lows that are, again, unprecedented. This may sound a minor issue but it is anything but. Advanced social science tells us trust was the secret to the rise of the West, the invisible forcefield that incubates a healthy, prosperous society. But now we in the UK are living through an age in which trust is slowly — almost imperceptibly — dissipating from public life.

And this, let me suggest, is the only way to understand Farage — whose tiny party is now just a few points behind the Tories. Like all populists, he draws his power from deep failures in the political consensus. Just as fascists and proto-fascists in the 1930s rose out of the hyperinflation that debased paper currency, figures like Farage — and, for that matter, Donald Trump — have gained potency from the duplicity that has debased the currency of political discourse. It is why I’d gently suggest to Campbell and the advisers of former Tory PMs that Farage is not the cause of our political chaos but a symptom of it.

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For the lies that have been told about immigration are not the familiar evasions of everyday politics or manifesto breaches that will always occur when circumstances change. No, they were premeditated lies about one of the central issues of our age, offered by both main parties at successive elections. For those involved in frontline politics to talk about Farage without noting that they cynically created the endemic distrust in which a populist like him can thrive seems to me a dereliction of responsibility of a rather profound kind.

And what’s worse is that the continuing crisis of candour (look at the tissue of half-truths from both main parties on legal and illegal immigration at this election) ensures that Farage-like figures will keep emerging, keep pushing centre-right parties to the fringes, keep stoking the polarisation in western nations, which is the greatest gift to the China-led totalitarian axis we face. Look at how the failure to control borders sits at the heart of the appeal of Marine Le PenGeert Wilders, Trump, the Sweden Democrats and on and on. This is not going away and will come to haunt Keir Starmer, too.

So how, in brief, would a rational immigration policy look? I’d invite you to look at the solutions proposed by the Tory backbencher Neil O’Brien and the left-leaning academic Michael Muthukrishna, who note that the key is to accept short-term pain for long-term gain. This means ending our addiction to low-wage labour, which saves money in the here and now but stores up vast liabilities because such workers are net recipients of tax funds — a classic Ponzi scheme. Instead we should pay higher wages to attract British workers, while focusing immigration policy on high-skilled individuals, who tend to integrate superbly and whose enterprise and ideas will not just boost GDP per capita but enrich our society, as immigrants so often do.

But let me finish with my dominant thought as I left Clacton, walking back along the pier and up to the station. Farage is a dangerous figure, a man who stirs division and dogwhistles to base instincts. He’s a menace. But perhaps the greater menace is the advocates of the “liberal” consensus who created the conditions for the rise of populism (along with the fiscal indebtedness and cultural fractures on which it feeds) but still now, after all these years, lack even a modicum of self-awareness. It is why I suspect that future historians will not regard them as liberals at all, but as arsonists who took a match to the collective trust on which we all rely. And who never acknowledged culpability. 

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