LBC’s James O’Brien did a superb job of placing the anti-immigration narrative of the Tories, unleashed at their first post-Brexit party conference in Birmingham, into its rightful and very worrying context. Simply put, we have entered a politics that bear a striking resemblance to that which Europe lived through in the 1930s, when in similar conditions of economic depression, austerity, and the ensuing assault on workers’ wages, conditions, and living standards, the politics of race and ultra nationalism were able to achieve mainstream legitimacy and traction.
If, by now, there is anybody on the left who still believes Brexit somehow enhances the prospect of a more just, equitable, and progressive society coming to pass, they are not only delusional but also mendacious. Those who sided with Farage and company — and here George Galloway with his obscene appearance at that now notorious UKIP anti-EU rally, where he baldly proclaimed, ‘Left-right, left right, all the way to victory,” springs to mind — in making the case for “taking the country” back should be hanging their heads in shame over the reality of Brexit, as opposed to the theoretical and doctrinal wonderland they inhabited while campaigning for it.
The warnings issued by those who saw further and deeper, that Brexit would unleash a tidal wave of right wing consciousness across the country, such as that which followed the Falklands War, were blithely ignored – even contemptuously dismissed – by people who should know better. The result is that we now have a Tory Prime Minister embracing the politics of anti-immigration and xenophobia in a move designed to curry favour with an indigenous white working class that has been persuaded that dwindling public services, low pay, and job insecurity is a product of immigration rather than inequality and Tory austerity.
With her speech — which followed on from an even more reactionary effort by her Home Secretary, Amber Rudd — Theresa May has drawn a clear dividing line in British society on the question of immigration and the status of migrants. In other words, you either stand in solidarity with migrants or you stand against them. Any nuanced middle ground left available to stand on when it comes to this question has now disappeared
Much of the responsibility for this state of affairs, the ability for such nakedly and brutal xenophobia to take root, lies with the left. As Ben Chu wrote in The Independent:
The academic evidence we have is very clear that immigration does not undermine average UK living standards, but actually enhances them. Some researchers have found that there is a negative impact on the wages of unskilled natives — but only a mild one. Overall the impact is positive.
Yet some on the liberal left, despite acknowledging this evidence, are moving to the view that telling people that they’re wrong when they complain of a negative economic impact of immigration is condescending.
Prior to the EU referendum, British society was already being dragged deeper and deeper into a swamp of identity and anti-politics. Seen in this light, Brexit marks an all-too regressive and reactionary culmination; tantamount to the reassertion of far right nostrums not only on free movement, but also on all immigration, minorities (particularly Muslims), and multiculturalism.
The reason such a vile and toxic mix has been able to gain the traction it undoubtedly has is austerity and the unleashing of the class war it describes and has informed. It has led to the collapse of the political centre ground, not only in Britain but all across Europe and the US, where Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency has served to elevate the same xenophobic and reactionary politics to mainstream legitimacy as Brexit. The space vacated by this collapse has been largely filled by the right and far right rather than the left. In sum, the right is currently winning the battle of ideas with the result the triumphalist re-branding of the Tories as a patriotic defender of British workers against their foreign counterparts and interlopers, coming over here to steal British jobs and push down the wages of British workers.
Jeremy Corbyn’s response to May’s conference speech, while of course welcome, was an exercise in attacking the Brexit horse after it has bolted. He and his team failed to understand the danger Brexit posed during the EU referendum campaign, else why was his campaign so lacklustre and woefully dispassionate?
The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon, who is the only party to leader to have emerged from the wreckage of Brexit with any credit, again proved her mettle when in response to May’s conference speech, she opined:
Theresa May’s vision of Brexit Britain is a deeply ugly one — a country where people are judged not by their ability or their contribution to the common good, but by their birthplace or by their passport. It is a vision the Scottish Government wants no part of, and one which we will never subscribe to.
The British people in 2016 are sleepwalking, just as people in Germany and elsewhere in the 1930s sleepwalked, into a sewer of right wing demagoguery and racism. Nobody should make the mistake in thinking it can’t happen here.