During last week’s election madness, many of us comforted ourselves with the belief that it couldn’t happen here. But how true is that? Thomas Coughlan sees ominous signs in the New Zealand left’s embrace of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The youngest voters to participate in last week’s US election would have been only ten years old when Bush Jr. limped out of office, mocked and derided, with one of the lowest approval ratings (25%) of any post-war American president. They may remember, faintly — the curious can remind themselves with a cursory YouTube search — his gaffes, his lapses of leadership, his blank, bovine gaze as he idly leafed through pages of My Pet Goat while his country literally burned. That youngest generation, with only Bush, Obama, and now perhaps Trump in mind, may not even be aware of the magnitude of political disintegration now playing out before them.
We live, as the Chinese curse goes, in interesting times. It is impossible to discern what is acceptable in our ever-shifting political discourse. In the United States and Europe this is particularly pronounced. Trump and Brexit have shown the power of anti-establishment, fringe movements to become part of the mainstream political conversation.
For New Zealanders, whose political culture (and political system) reflects Britain’s in so many ways, the politics that enabled the Brexit vote should be particularly alarming. Our recent lurch towards anti-immigrant politics bears strange resemblance to the birth of this latest spate of nativism in Britain. In his most recent volume of memoirs, Alastair Campbell, former spin doctor to Tony Blair, hazarded a guess as to the genesis of the nationalist politics that led to Brexit.
His account exonerates the usual suspects: he does not lay blame at the feet of Enoch Powell, whose ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech ignobly languishes alongside Donald Trump’s ‘Murderers and Rapists’ in the annals of Anglo-American nativist rhetoric, nor does he give credit to bumbling Nigel Farage, Brexit’s (somehow) affable salesman. Instead, Campbell lays the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Tory party leadership, who, desperate for a line of attack on the still-popular Tony Blair, tried to weaponise Polish migration during the 2005 election.
“We were more and more aware of the problem politically but there was always a tension between knowing that the economy and public services needed immigration but knowing the issue was causing real concerns,” Campbell told The Guardian, “I think the fact that we won two elections in 2001 and 2005 despite the Tories campaigning on immigration may also have made us complacent.” Labour refused to push back against the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right, allowing it to mutate, cancer-like into the nation’s single political issue.
From that point, immigration, specifically European immigration, became part of the acceptable political discourse. Incubated by an intellectually and ideologically impoverished Tory leadership, anti-immigrant sentiment reentered the political mainstream. Eventually, Labour countered, not wanting to look weak. From then, legitimated by policy from the two leading parties, immigration became a political football.
The 1922 Committee of hardline Tory backbenchers, many of whom had scarcely uttered a word about immigration, now used it to fuel fresh invective against the European Union. Their chief gripe, that the EU restricted national sovereignty, had never gained much traction since the first European referendum in 1975. In immigration they found the political Trojan horse with which to advance their agenda.
Over the past year, the discussion of immigration in New Zealand has raised echoes of Britain’s anguishing experience. In Winston Peters, we have our own Nigel Farage, a likeable enough nativist hitherto confined to the political fringe. But with Labour, National and finally the Greens all pledging to cut immigration — in the Greens’ case, radically – New Zealand’s three largest parties have allowed this toxic issue to enter the political mainstream, the very thing our MMP system was designed to prevent.
With its focus on issues of nationality and citizenship, immigration is by definition political. To be clear, it does have an effect on house prices and wages if not managed correctly. In the UK, mass migration has uprooted communities and put strain on already underfunded schools and hospitals — it is therefore our right to discuss it. However, it’s disheartening to watch the gatekeepers of established political discourse so spinelessly kowtow to some relatively marginal anxiety over a brief uptick in migration in a pathetic vote-grabbing exercise.
Politicians pretend exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment energises voters at the minor expense of immigrants yet to arrive; that their bluster will encourage Pacific Islanders or Chinese to think twice about emigrating, and stay in their own countries. The recent spilling of Polish blood in the streets of Britain grimly disproves this calculation. The immigrants already arrived pay the heavy price for politicians’ cheaply won electoral gains — there are rivers of blood alright.
The new low in establishment politics was struck at this year’s Tory party conference, where both Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd articulated, to the braying party faithful, their vision of grateful, supplicant immigrants, ever-conscious of their difference and their debt, and mindful always of their rapacious drain on public finances. These immigrants, if they could learn to tolerate themselves, would be tolerated by Britain. When a radio host read a page of Mein Kampf on air, initially claiming it to be an excerpt from Rudd’s speech, few were surprised.
New Zealanders should look at this in fear. When even the apparently far-sighted Greens look at weaponising high house prices and low wage growth via anti-immigrant sentiment, we know our political discourse has truly jumped the shark. Lurking in the shadows of the nativist madness gripping Britain is the hubris of her politicians who recklessly thought they could open the Pandora’s Box of immigration and tame the horrific nationalism inside. There is only one end to that kind of anti-immigration debate, and it is an end that Britain and America are fast approaching: outright fascism. It is not too much to say that, if conducted incorrectly, the debate on immigration which will inevitably play out at next year’s election may win thousands of votes, but come at the cost of our democracy. As New Zealanders, we must ponder where we would like our own political discourse to be in ten years.
As a student, it took me a long time to work out a definition for politics that reconciled my disparate views on human rights, economics and the provision of social services. For me, ideal politics is not about the ‘what’ or the ‘whether’, but the ‘how’. One of the simplest examples of this is the role of feminism in our democracy. Politics is not the space to question the place of women in our society – we do (or should) know what that place is: absolute liberty. Rather, politics is the place to debate how we might better achieve that place — the how. The same is true of all human rights movements and the same is definitely true of immigration. People move. We always have. It is therefore incumbent upon our political system to deliver us solutions that will facilitate the movement of people to our country, reconciling their needs with those already here.