Monday, 25 July 2011

Beware the politics of the last atrocity

We are all, rightly, Norwegian today. The inhumanity of the events is overwhelming - only tempered by the humanity of the collective response. But as the media and the commentariat struggle for new things to say, the issue of the ‘need’ for a debate on the ‘problem’ of race and immigration keeps cropping up. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/25/uk-norway-multiculturalism-idUSLNE76O02G20110725  

Where did that need come from? Surely not from the self-indulgent savagery of a deluded ultra-right narcissist. Surely we do not give the debate credibility because he turned to senseless slaughter.

To embark on a debate that begins with immigration and mixed cultures being a problem to be addressed, would do a massive disservice to those who died. It would hand a huge victory to the perpetrator and to the neo-fascist ideas that underpinned his savagery. Have we never learned the lessons of the politics of the last atrocity?

The reason we can more or less go about our business in relative co-operation with each other is that most of us choose not to kill our fellow humans. We can’t live with any sense of freedom constantly on guard for the nonentity that will exploit that freedom, just because he is full of hate and he can.

So security-wise there is not a lot we can do and, if we want to live next-to-normal lives, perhaps there is not a lot we should do.

But when it comes to the ideas, then we can do something.

We can lead a debate that challenges the purveyors of hate. At the very basic level we can rejoice in our own cultures as well as diversity, argue that immigration enriches rather than swamps, and challenge the myths that some politicians are only too happy to leave untouched as they pamper to a latent racism for electoral purposes.

But we can only do that if we engage everyone. That means also engaging those who have accepted the myths. Those who see a different culture as a ready scapegoat for the disaffection they feel. Those who would never dream of the hate and barbarism of fascism but who occasionally start a conversation with “I’m not a racist, but….”

As John Cruddas ventured in an interview in May ( http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/05/david-goodhart-jon-cruddas-interview/  ), much of that disaffection is real. The strategies he floats for tackling it may edge too close to appeasement for my taste, but he is right that Labour needs to proactively engage with the working class and respect their fears and aspirations, rather than losing its ability to stand up for basic principle in its pursuit of Middle England.

That means building from where people are. Getting back on the street and into communities. Setting the agenda and putting the blame where it lies. Listening and recognising that immigration is not in itself a problem, it’s the exploitation of all of those who are deprived of respect and a fair share of the country’s wealth.

The curse is that many of the most disaffected see no alternative but to focus the blame on others in the same boat because they are different. And the fascists will provide plenty of fuel for that.

That’s not to say the problems they face are not real. If it’s low wages, the focus lands on the migrant worker not the greedy employer. If it’s lack of access to housing, the target is the immigrant not the government.

The political and economic exploiters love this. They breed on the discontent. They see the chance to control, to force down wages, conditions, opportunities - and most of all power - and blame that on someone else. It’s about class, not ethnicity.

Immigration is not the debate that’s needed. It’s exploitation and fascism and how we fight them.

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