An editorial in The Guardian asked a key question following the shock ‘win’ this month of a far-right politician in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, and his anti-immigrant ‘Party for Freedom’.
‘How did the Netherlands reach the point at which a former political pariah finds himself on the threshold of formal power?’
‘Mainstream parties on the right, including the VVD [the Netherland’s largest party in government since 2010] appear to have played into Mr Wilders’ hands by endorsing and attempting to co-opt his anti-migrant agenda.’
Let me run that by you again.
Some of the mainstream parties in the Netherlands – including the moderate VVD conservative-liberal party that was the country’s largest party in power since 2010 – helped Mr Wilders into power by ‘endorsing and attempting to co-opt his anti-migrant agenda.’
That should trigger a déjà vu alarm bell among all of us in the UK that lament the victory of Brexit, Boris Johnson, and severe anti-immigrant policies and wonder how it could have happened.
Well, it happened because mainstream parties and politicians in Britain also endorsed and attempted to co-opt an anti-migrant, anti-refugee agenda.
Of course, it was Nigel Farage and his far-right UKIP party that got the anti-migrant ball rolling.
But the problem was that the main parties and politicians didn’t stop the ball. They ran with it.
Liberal-thinking, middle-of-the-road politicians, who should have known better, let the blame-game grow. The anti-immigration, anti-refugee message gained momentum without being properly challenged.
Instead, those same parties and politicians – who should have immediately called ‘FOUL’ – fanned the flames of racist rhetoric, allowing migrants to be scapegoated for problems they hadn’t caused. There was no rational reason to fear migrants.
But senior politicians in both the Conservatives and The Labour parties began to be fearful of Farage and UKIP. Consequently, they unwisely helped to promote and prolong the anti-migrant agenda, along with most British newspapers, also guilty of inciting UKIP’s message of xenophobia.
In November 2014, Labour’s Rachel Reeves, then the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary (now Shadow Chancellor), said on BBC Newsnight:
“I don’t think it’s right to come to this country whether from the European Union or outside the European Union and draw down on benefits from the day you arrive.”
Not only did such statements help to promote Brexit and xenophobia, but it was also entirely untrue. Migrants cannot just come to the UK and claim benefits.
At the same time, Kelly Tolhurst, a Conservative MP who won the 2014 by-election in in the Rochester and Strood, wrote in her campaign literature:
“I wanted to bring the Prime Minister to this constituency to show him that uncontrolled immigration has hurt this area.”
In a separate leaflet she added that local people “don’t feel safe walking down the high street of our town” due to “uncontrolled immigration.”
Again, not only did such a statements help to promote Brexit and xenophobia, but they were also entirely untrue.
How could there be a problem of ‘uncontrolled migration’ in Rochester and Strood? It has a lower than average immigrant population than the national, and even regional, level. Its population is 87 per cent white British.
Nigel Farage, then leader of UKIP, was of course the master in misleading statements. He told The Telegraph in 2015:
“Parts of the country have been taken over by foreigners and mass immigration has left Britain as unrecognisable.”
It was dangerous, disingenuous, inflammatory nonsense, of course.
Britons didn’t have a serious problem with migration before the likes of Nigel Farage told them they did. A map published by City AM in 2015 showed that UKIP’s support was strongest in areas where hardly any migrants lived.
In November 2014, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, told the electorate:
“I know you are worried about immigration.”
What he really meant was, “You know I am worried about UKIP.”
So worried, that he called for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU that he didn’t have to call. It was all because of an irrational fear of UKIP and their irrational scapegoating of immigrants as the cause of our problems.
Reported the BBC on the rise of UKIP:
‘David Cameron’s historic pledge to hold and an in/out referendum on UK membership of the EU if the Conservatives won the next election was interpreted by some as an attempt to halt the rise of UKIP, which senior Tories feared could prevent them from winning an overall majority in 2015.’
Think about this: Previously, leaving the EU had been a minority issue on the sidelines of politics. It only became mainstream after attacks against migration.
Former Tory MP, Sir Oliver Letwin, said after the referendum that British politicians had “made a terrible mistake” in failing to take on the argument about immigration, the argument spread by UKIP.
He told The Sunday Times in November 2016:
“We all, the Labour party and the Conservative Party alike … made a terrible mistake, which was not to take on the argument about migration.”
He added that UKIP exploited the failure of mainstream politicians to put the counterargument that:
“Migration enriches the country in every way.”
Today, good people and good parties are still failing to adequately present that counterargument.
- Video: How newspapers spread a fear of migrants and refugees
Follow my journalism on: