Thursday, April 29th, 2010 08:31 am
Is it racist - or bigoted - to want to talk about immigration?

That's not an easy question to answer. Almost any discussion about immigration frames the debate in terms of 'us' and 'them', and once you've done that, bigotry or racism in some form almost inevitably follows. And yet, few people regard the subject of immigration itself as taboo, or are in favour of removing all restrictions (for the record, and with some reservations, I'm in favour of totally free migration, but I recognise that's not the general view).

What is undeniable is that many people raise the subject of immigration in a racist or bigoted way. Gillian Duffy did so yesterday, by asking 'You can't say anything about the immigrants. All these eastern Europeans what are coming in - where are they flocking from?' It was a bigoted question, and Gordon Brown was correct to label it as such.

(Incidentally, the claim that you can't say anything about immigrants is an odd one, since it's been brought up in both Prime Ministerial debates and was the very first question of all asked in the first one. I'd be amazed if it didn't come up tonight, either.)

Furthermore (and this isn't in many of the transcripts - The Telegraph has the best one I've found) Gordon Brown did try to answer the question. His reply: 'A million people come from Europe but a million have gone into Europe. You do know that there’s a lot of British people staying in Europe as well,' is a perfectly respectable answer to that question; it engages with the the question and makes some attempt to diffuse the fear behind it.

It's never comfortable to engage with bigoted arguments. Whenever I do it, there's a little voice in my head that says 'you do realise that by even discussing this, you're legitimising it?' But the problem is that if the only people who will engage with bigots are other bigots, the bigotry becomes self-reinforcing and gets worse. I have seen bigots become non-bigots. In my lifetime, I have seen vast swathes of British society move from being largely homophobic to largely accepting, and from being racist to being ... well, 'non-racist' seems too strong a claim, so I'll go for 'a lot less racist'. There have been many reasons for this, and several conflicting tactics have scored their own successes, but time after time what has happened is that the bigots have been engaged with, often by the people they are bigoted against, and come to realise that their bigotry is wrong.

I have, occasionally, seen someone have success by saying: 'you're being a bigot, and I'm not going to talk to you until you stop being bigoted'. But, crucially, I have only seen this work when used by someone the bigot respected, usually a close friend or family member. Very few people want to think they're bigoted, so unless they trust the person who's telling them this, they're unlikely to give the accusation much credence. From a stranger - including a Prime Minister on walkabout - it only reinforces the sense that this is a taboo subject that the other person doesn't want to talk about because they don't have any answers. It is something that may need to be said anyway; if we never say 'you are being bigoted' to bigots, then the target of the bigotry may reasonably come to feel that we share the bigotry. The target of the bigotry deserves our support far more than the bigot does, and we need to be clear where our solidarity lies.

So while I feel that it's a good idea to engage with bigots and try to make them less bigoted, I hope that it can be done without making the victims of their bigotry feel less isolated, and without looking as though we agree with the bigots. I realise that's a big ask, and in many senses unfair, and I also realise that a white, straight, middle-class, able-bodied male is precisely the wrong person to be making this case. The goal, though, is a less bigoted, more understanding society, so I hope the argument is sound anyway - I will listen closely to any dissenting views, though.

But that's a longer-term argument. Persuading bigots is a slow process. My fear for this election is that Gordon Brown's comments will have felt like an dismissal of a large section of the electorate who share Gillian Duffy's concerns; in this, it's even more tragic that what's being reported is his (nominally private) dismissal of her as 'bigoted' rather than his actual answer on immigration. This may push people to vote Tory, but is more likely to push them towards UKIP or the BNP - those are both parties that tend to see a surge in support whenever a Westminster politician of any party is thought not to be listening to the views of the public. That's why Gillian Duffy's apparently simple question was such a hand grenade; she perfectly expresses thoughts that vast numbers of British people agree with, but don't recognise as bigotry.

What all three of the leaders in the debate tonight need to say is something like this: 'yes, it was a bigoted question, (and here's why ...). But accepting that, let's - for the third time in as many weeks - address the issue of immigration (and here are our policies...)'. Doing the first without the second will alienate people and look like dodging a question that genuinely deserves an answer - even if the answer is 'your premise is wrong'. Doing the second without the first is tacitly condoning bigotry.

I'm not sure I can bear to watch.
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