Hammond’s anti-migrant tirade echoes Enoch Powell, and we should be worried

Hammond’s anti-migrant tirade echoes Enoch Powell, and we should be worried

Date: 13 August 2015

It is depressing that so little has changed in almost half a century. In 1968, Enoch Powell gave his infamous Rivers of Blood speech. He predicted that immigration would cause falling living standards, shortages of hospital beds and school places and spoke of the ‘privilege’ that migrants enjoyed over and above the existing population.

Fast forward 47 years and here we are, hearing it all over again. Not, as we would expect, from that open admirer of Enoch, Nigel Farage, but from the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond.

Out came the same old tired lines (or more accurately lies) about how, as the world’s ninth richest country, we don’t have the resources to accept a few thousand desperate refugees camped out in the ‘jungle’ near Calais and how immigration will grind the NHS to a halt. But the language, these people are now ‘marauders’, took the toxicity of the comments to another level.

When David Cameron referred to ‘swarms’ of migrants last week, many were critical of his unfortunate choice of words, but there was also some appetite to give the PM the benefit of the doubt. After all, it is a phrase used at times to describe shoppers at sales and other more harmless situations. But Hammond’s ‘Rivers of Migrants’ comments crossed a red line. He consciously used language designed to pander to the xenophobic sentiment of the right wing press, using many of the same arguments advanced by Enoch Powell many years ago.

And like Powell, none of these arguments has any basis in truth. We know now that far from leading to shortages of hospital beds, the Commonwealth migrants of the 1960s and 70s went on to form the backbone of the NHS (and arguably still do to this day). We also know that research has shown that migrants are generally net contributors to UK society, and are far less likely to claim benefits (non-EU migrants can’t legally claim benefits anyway) than the local population. If the UK’s health and welfare systems are under threat, it is government policy, not migration to blame.

But in a very important way, all of this argument about what ‘we’ should do about the people seeking to reach the UK from Calais is a distraction from the real question that should be asked. Why are these people so desperate to come here in the first place?

The answer is obvious, where they are not escaping outright war and persecution, it is because the standard of living here is far higher than that in their countries of origin. But why do people accept this state of affairs as part of some preordained ‘natural’ order of things?

It would be an exaggeration to say that all of migration is somehow ‘our fault’ – in fact, even discussing it in this way presupposes that migration is a bad thing. But British foreign policy, economic structures, and even aid provision have played a very real role in perpetuating the root causes of migration.

UK arms companies sell weapons to dodgy regimes who then use them against their own people. UK trade policy forces developing countries into unequal trade relationships that undermine their economic development. And multinational companies based here in the UK extract much more profit from many countries in Africa, than they receive in aid.

All of this contributes to the terrible poverty and unprecedented inequality between ‘rich countries’ and ‘poor countries’ that is the major ‘engine’ of migration.

Of course, if we got rid of the inequality, people would still migrate, but it would be for good reasons such as really liking Liverpool, or wanting to be closer to their parents. In fact, people would migrate in the same way that hundreds of thousands of UK citizens do every year, not because of war or poverty, but because they are people who choose to exercise the natural human urge to move freely from place to place. But if we got rid of the chasm of economic opportunity that exists between Europe and its southern and eastern neighbours, there would no longer be an immigration crisis and there would be no ‘jungle’ in Calais.

No one in the UK questions what they have done to deserve all of the privileges that come with a British passport. A UK citizen can have breakfast in Paris, lunch in London and supper in New York with little more hassle than an official giving their passports a cursory glance. To arrive here legally, someone from the global south has to go through a humiliating and expensive process lasting weeks or months, involving embassies and the collation of mountains of paperwork just to visit the UK for a day. Even with all of this done, they can still be turned away at the border for pretty much any reason and without any recourse. No one but the wealthiest refugees can afford to go through this arduous process and have no other option but to try and get here illegally.

It is this dimension that Hammond is ignoring when he castigates illegal immigrants and what Theresa May forgets when she talks of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for them in the UK. These people would certainly avail themselves of a legal way to escape the poverty and war if they could. It is the lack of this choice that means people are drowning in the Mediterranean or dying trying to cross the English Channel.

There is a pressing need to fight the ideas of Philip Hammond and his allies, who like Enoch Powell before them, see migrants as threatening invaders. Their policies are inhumane and morally wrong, but they are also doomed to fail even on their own terms. No wall, electric fence or xenophobic immigration policy will ultimately stop this movement of people until the root causes are dealt with.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.