Following my previous post, I’d like to add a bit more to the debate about Brexit and migration. On this issue, a common defence of the Leave campaign is that the central concern was about the need to cut the number of migrants to the UK so as to reduce competition for jobs. The plausibility of this defence has been undercut by recent negotiations, widely reported in the Australian press, but largely ignored by British media.
Prior to the Brexit vote, and constrained by freedom of movement within the EU, the Cameron government sought to address these concerns by imposing stringent restrictions on non-EU migrants, notably including Australians. Unsurprisingly, Australians weren’t happy about this, and the Australian government voiced these concerns.
But, given the validation of concerns about migration by the Brexit votes, and renewed pledges to cut net migration, you might have expected Australia to get short shrift from the new government. Not a bit of it. On the contrary it seems pretty clear that the hoped-for cut in EU migration will allow more room for Australians (someone has to do all those jobs, after all). Boris Johnson has been explicit about this, but what really matters are the favorable noises coming from Home Secretary Amber Rudd, whose portfolio covers migration.
The underlying idea, again made explicit by Johnson, is a restoration of free movement within the ‘white Commonwealth’ (Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Britain). This would take British migration policy back to the line advocated by Enoch Powell in the 1960s, and arguably further back than that.
It’s easy enough to point out the racism* implicit in Johnson’s position. But, as I said in my previous post, that has to be the starting point, not the end point. It’s necessary to respond to the particular form of racism present here, and show that it’s untenable. The assumption underlying Johnson’s position is that it’s possible to operate a large scale migration program in a way that avoids explicit discrimination, but ensures that only “people like us” get in.
One illustration of the problem, put very neatly by one of my Twitter commenters, is that Johnson might be surprised at the range of colours young Australians come in these days (unlike the largely Anglo-Celtic society he apparently visited as a youth). The same is true of New Zealand and, I think, of Canada. Free migration to the UK will bring in plenty of the people that the Brexiteers want to keep out.
On the other side of the coin, there’s the irony that the Polish government (along with the rest of the Visegrad group) is simultaneously ready to fight to the end for the principle of free movement within the EU and to resist demands that Poland should take its share of refugees from Syria. This kind of hypocrisy is, if not the norm, at least very common among supporters of discriminatory immigration policies: they are keen to keep others out of their own patch, but resentful of any constraints on their own freedom of movement. That makes sense from a viewpoint of racial/tribal superiority, but it’s hard to see any other basis for it.
The contradictions inherent in racism and tribalism mean that it can’t be sustained for long as a basis for policy, as it will need to do if Brexit is to work. But that doesn’t mean it can’t do an awful lot of damage in the meantime.
* Writing this, I realised that someone would be bound to raise the point that, as white Christians, Poles could not be the subject of racism or religious bigotry. Anyone thinking raising this point might want to think about the bloody history of scientific racism regarding the Nordic and Slavic “races”, not to mention the role of anti-Catholic bigotry in English history.