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Ed West: The van was nasty. But immigration control isn’t. A point I make in "The Diversity Illusion".

Ed West is the deputy editor of The Catholic Herald. Follow Ed on Twitter. 

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 07.36.52I was slightly disappointed that I never got to see the Home Office's "go back to your own country" van as it toured around London like a reverse Olympic torch. They could have got some jugglers and corporate backing, with people handing out fizzy drinks, as it travelled around the capital.

The van was a mistake, not because of its aim of removing illegal immigrants, but because it was a stunt, and stunts and gimmicks backfire, even more so in sensitive areas such as this – so it just came across as nasty.

Besides which, like those signs that say “thieves operate in this area”, which subconsciously say “police don’t”, the vans also gave the impression that the country wasn’t in control of its borders (which may well be true, but we don’t need to advertise it).

But it should not deter the Government from its stated goal of reducing immigration down to pre-Blair figures. It has reason and public opinion on its side; its critics have only hysteria and hyperbole.

One of the main themes of my book, The Diversity Illusion, is that Labour's immigration policy was inspired by a radical, utopian vision in which borders and national ethnic identity would melt away. This universalism is utopian because it fails to take into account human nature and our instinctive need for community and solidarity; in this vision, all the myriad problems of a multi-ethnic society can be overcome by ideological training.

By this logic, a belief in borders, and in limited immigration, is a manifestation of that modern form of false consciousness, racism (like its ideological distant cousin, Communism, universalism has to come up with complex and unfalsifiable explanations for why the people, especially the working class, hate it). This is why the Conservatives' policy on immigration has to be explained by racism.

And yet hostility to immigration does not mean hostility to immigrants - the PEW Research Centre’s findings showed that in most European and North American countries opposition to mass immigration was overwhelmingly strong, and yet most people had favourable opinions of people from the developing world. They don't want their countries to be radically changed so that they no longer feel their neighbourhood is theirs - no one does - but, incredibly enough, they're not just itching for their chance to get on the jackboots and start murdering their neighbours.

Part of the reason for UkIP’s success is that it is clearly led by people with this fairly nuanced, human view of the world, who don’t fit this false dichotomy where everyone is either an approved anti-racist or a racist. Just like the vast majority of people around the world, in fact. Nigel Farage's criticism of the van has been called clever triangulation, but I'm guessing it was heartfelt - his argument is that there is no need to be nasty while dealing with immigration effectively.

The Home Office has a difficult task, but it can do its task effectively and humanely, while being sensitive to race relations. The British liberal-left's problem is that they think any restrictive immigration policy is racist and must be about demonising immigrants, and that puts them out of step with most voters (including a significant minority of black and a majority of Asian voters). The over-the-top outrage at the so-called "racist van" only illustrated this.

It is odd that people who generally think the state must do everything in our lives get angry about it doing its basic, primary function - defending the borders. Illegal immigrants have to be removed, difficult and upsetting though that is, if we are to have borders, and all the things that depend on borders (including the welfare state), and the public agree with this; just as the public agreed that there should be restrictions on fetching marriages, another reform that the Guardianistas and the race industry made a fuss of, but which Labour quietly abandoned any opposition to when they realised that the public supported the Coalition. Likewise the row over bogus students, despite some fairly biased coverage by the BBC, saw initial squeals of outrage and warnings about economic disaster and racial hatred.

Because underlying the opposition to reform is the argument that discussing immigration, in any way that upsets the Guardian worldview, will lead to actual violence. In a New Statesman article about the death of an African migrant, one writer declared that it is “vital to draw the link between tragedies like the death of Mubenga and the way immigrants are discussed in the media and politics”.

Really? The strangest thing about the universalist take on immigration is that it's built on a series of conflicting theories. Among these are the twin beliefs that (a) multi-ethnic societies are wonderful, harmonious places and (b) in multi-ethnic societies we can't go near the subject of race or immigration because it will lead to pogroms by whites against non-whites. Either (a) is true or (b) is, but they can't both be. And if (b) is true, then surely the narrative put about by anti-racist activists, that Britain is a racist society holding back minorities and persecuting Muslims, must also lead to violence by minorities against whites (numerically more common)? Indeed, many young Islamic radicals have in the past stated that they became radicalised because they believed Muslims were being persecuted in Europe, using language that sounds remarkably familiar.

Is that an absurd link? Possibly, and it can’t be proved either way. And I suspect that the Government’s rhetoric is not in fact inspiring any violence or hatred at all, and a sharp reduction in immigration will take place without the country becoming any less welcoming or open-minded.

And in the longer term firmer borders will allow greater social cohesion and integration among communities already here, which as a bonus may lead eventually to more minorities making the migration we care most about – from Labour to Conservative.

But in the meantime, leave off the gimmicks. 


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