There is little left to say about Gordon Brown’s disaster yesterday. Roy Greenslade has summarised the press coverage this morning and it tells its own story. But, there is one element of this business that bothers me greatly.
In the context of the most personality-driven and presidential general election campaign I can remember, the story is all about Gordon Brown’s hypocrisy and political demise. Immigration is beginning to get more of an airing, but not in substance … only in terms of it being a legitimate topic for concern or debate. That worries me in itself.
But, my main worry has to do with generalisation and categorisation.
We have learned over the years not to categorise people. We should not speak about ‘homosexuals’, but ‘homosexual people’ (in the context of church debates, for example). We refer to ‘disabled people’, not ‘the disabled’. Yet, we have stigmatised politicians (greedy wasters) and bankers (greedy wasters) in a way that is undifferentiated, lazy and even destructive. And now we are doing it with ‘immigrants’.
Forgive the reference (and I am not equating these in terms of the gravity of the phenomena), but whenever we categorise groups of people we run the risk of misrepresenting and misjudging the truth or the reality. Look at the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda… or the Jews in Weimar Germany. (Remember the paediatrician in Portsmouth whose house was targetted by the anti-paedophile mobs?) So, when conducting important discussions about immigration into our small island, the language we use matters.
So, when we speak of ‘immigrants’, to whom are we referring? And when we speak (as yesterday) of ‘Eastern European immigrants’, do we really intend to lump them all together in one negative category? And when we listen to the vox pops from Rochdale estates in which we hear that housing and jobs are going to ‘them’, precisely which houses and jobs are being denied to the English? And would they do these jobs anyway?
Reality is always more complicated than headlines. But, given that we live in a blame culture – in which everything has to be someone else’s fault – anyway, how do we find the language for an intelligent and informed debate about immigration instead of the generalised and (undifferentiatedly) categorised demonisation we see at the moment? Just because lots of people are concerned about immigration (or their perception of it) does not mean we are right to use it as a cheap way of appearing populist or winning votes.
I shrank with embarrassment when I saw Brown’s gaffe. But I also wondered why the gaffe became the story instead of immigration becoming the issue. And I also wondered what it would feel like to be a tax-paying, socially responsible Eastern European immigrant in England this morning – or how our newspapers would handle the news that British emigrants were being demonised in countries where they also were entitled to live.