OPINION - The extremists have never been so far from the public on immigration


I researched a piece about culture wars a few years ago and learned that culture war in Britain doesn’t really exist. It is incited, it is dreamt of and exploited, but it is essentially a fiction. British people are a kaleidoscope of opinion, not two sides staring over an abyss. That is the US, not here.

The data on culture war comes from Bobby Duffy, professor of public policy at King’s College, London, and he has a new report about attitudes to immigration. You would do better to listen to Duffy than to many journalists and politicians. It is a frightening time: Lee Anderson, a new deputy chair of the Tory party, calls people arriving in small boats “criminals”. People emboldened by this rhetoric stand outside hotels housing asylum seekers, shout slogans and set fires. They aren’t far-Right, say the credulous — or malicious. Then who is? Of course, Patriotic Alternative, who are leading the campaign of harassment, are far-Right, and, if these journalists and politicians left their offices for Skegness or Knowsley they might realise it.

I understand why they do it: and the irresponsible elements of their enemies. Culture war enables people to ignore their own reality and build another, more comfortable and more colourful for them: I’m not surprised that public services are in ruins. It is mad, and useful to elements of a government that has run out of ideas, but it isn’t boring. Rage is addictive, and people will do a lot in the service of their fantasies. Real life is much harder.

Duffy’s findings on immigration are heartening, even unbelievable, if you listen to the drivel floating in the air: if you believe, as many did, that Brexit was entirely racially motivated, rather than a protest, at least in part, against ever-closer union with Europe. The British are accepting of economic migration now, with one million unfilled vacancies and more. Only 29 per cent think priority for jobs should be given to local people; in 2009 it was 65 per cent. Of the 24 countries studied, only Germany and Sweden have more liberal views.

We are fourth in believing economic migrants are beneficial to the country — almost 60 per cent — and bottom in believing immigration increases unemployment and fifth in wanting to offer asylum to refugees in danger: again, 60 per cent. That means the people setting fires outside hotels are not the silent majority, as has been insinuated, but almost the entire constituency that believes that.

What does this mean? Two things. The first is that the reality of Brexit, misconceived or mismanaged, is rising in the public consciousness: the public now know that close to 150,000 vacancies in the NHS might plausibly kill them, and that restricting immigration makes us materially poorer, and weaker, and less interesting as a country. (Russia is bottom.) The second is that this country is far less angry, or frightened, than people flogging culture wars pretend — and over the cacophony of their nonsense, that can’t be shouted loud enough.

Luciana’s welcome return

Luciana Berger has re-joined Labour at Sir Keir Stammer’s invitation, and that is the most important symbol so far that his war on anti-semitism in the party is won. Berger, who is Jewish, was Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, but she quit in 2019 after abuse from Corbynites: she faced a motion of no confidence in her constituency when she was eight months pregnant and required security at the Labour Party Conference. Starmer called the day she left “a stain on Labour’s history”.

I was at the House of Commons when Berger spoke of her experience. Jeremy Corbyn was on the front bench alongside Diane Abbott, but they did not look at her. He could have stood up there and then and said “not in my name” about the people harassing Berger and the Labour MP Ruth Smeeth, who is also Jewish and spoke alongside her, but he didn’t. His anti-racism did not go that far.