Whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s referendum, one thing is already certain. We are all dancing to Ukip’s tune now.
To appreciate how far the centre-ground in the immigration debate has moved, think back to October, and the outcry that followed a Theresa May speech, in which the Home Secretary said there was “no case” for immigration on the scale we have seen and warned that it was “impossible” to build a cohesive society with such high levels of immigration.
The speech was rightly criticised on the left and right for ignoring the clear economic benefits that migration – particularly from the EU – has brought to the UK. Some pointed out that in those communities with highest migration, the inevitable pressures on public services and the understandable frustrations they bring could have been alleviated by the kind of migrant impact fund that the Coalition quietly scrapped. Others invited Ms May to look at our great cities and ask whether they were or were not “cohesive” societies.
But I suspect that if she had made the speech now, the reaction would be quite different.
Who now dares to make the positive case for immigration? In calling this referendum, and underestimating the depths to which his opponents would sink, David Cameron has opened a Pandora’s Box of anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation rhetoric that he – or whoever follows him – may find impossible to close, whatever the result.
Vote Leave used to say they didn’t need to play the immigration card. Their leaders are not stupid. They know that immigration is good, if not essential for this country to prosper. They planned to be intellectually honest and argue for Brexit on the grounds of sovereignty and with a vision for Britain as a nation that could set its own trade agenda.
But very quickly it became apparent that they had lost the economic argument. So they broke the emergency glass labelled "immigration". In doing so they have inflamed community tensions, appealed to people’s worst instincts and given credence to a misguided anger against immigration, to which Labour and the Conservatives will now feel enormous pressure to pander.
This shift in the centre-ground on immigration was already underway before the referendum – most memorably demonstrated by Labour’s confused pledge of "controls on immigration" at last year’s general election. But the referendum has turned a gradual process into a sudden lurch.
Already, senior Labour figures have begun to lay the ground for a potentially tougher line on immigration (although Jeremy Corbyn, to his credit, has refused to compromise on what he knows to be true – immigration is good for Britain).
Meanwhile, the Conservatives under a potential Boris Johnson leadership post-Brexit would be under pressure to deliver on the anti-immigration promise of Vote Leave. Nigel Farage has already said Ukip will remain an electoral force, and can be expected to howl in populist anguish at any sign of the Government loosening its control of the immigration figures.
And if we vote to Remain, the strength of feeling against immigration will not go away. If anything, Ukip will feel they had been robbed of a victory, and will become even more vocal and, if their "Breaking Point" poster is anything to go by, more venomous than before.
There is genuine and understandable concern about immigration in Britain. It is not racist to be concerned about immigration. But immigration is good for Britain and it is the job of politicians to lead. Rather than allowing themselves to be borne on the tide of anti-migrant sentiment, they must make a stand and explain why migration is, on the whole, a good thing.
Where it is a problem, it is a practical one of resources for public services. A sensible, compassionate response from the Government would be to back Jeremy Corbyn’s call for the migrant impact funds – targeted support for public services in areas most affected by migrant population increases.
While delivering practical solutions, our leaders must stand firm against those political forces who sew unfounded fear around immigration. They must tell a story about how, we, as an ageing population, need the migrant worker to pay the taxes that will pay for our NHS, our schools and our elderly care. They must not let this debate be dictated, as it as in recent weeks, by those forces of division that "want our country back" from some imagined other, who in reality is already in our midst, and who – surprise, surprise – tends to be a good neighbour, a hard worker and an honest taxpayer.
This is a dangerous time for politics in Britain. In the wake of this referendum, we will need the leaders of the Conservatives and Labour to remind us how we used to think about immigration in calmer, more rational times. Otherwise, the sinister forces that Vote Leave and Ukip have unleashed could dominate our politics for many years to come.
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