For several decades, racists who thought it politically incorrect to attack people for being black or brown instead protested about “immigration”, and wanted to send immigrants “back where they came from”. This desire to repatriate applied irrespective of whether the black or brown person in question was actually an immigrant or someone who had been born in Britain. Such details did not matter, since what the racists were really against was the idea that Britons could be anything other than people with white skins, preferably of Anglo-Saxon origin.
While racists can be found in all political parties, it is a historical fact that every significant piece of legislation promoting racial equality was enacted by Labour governments, usually over Conservative opposition. Meanwhile from time to time some Conservative politicians would come out with speeches making it clear that they would rather people like me left the country, if necessary with the assistance of a repatriation grant. While such racist policies never became official Conservative policy, we had enough such people within our party to ruin our brand with most people from an ethnic minority background. That is why even today if someone is from an ethnic minority, even if they are highly educated or rich, they are much more likely to vote Labour than vote Conservative. If you have not already read it, I recommend Lord Ashcroft's report "Degrees of Separation."
However, over the last decade, the automatic association of the word “immigrant” and “ethnic minority” has ceased to apply.
I realised this for the first time a few years ago when I was doing some telephone canvassing from CCHQ. I was phoning homes in West London. From both peoples’ names and from their accents, I could tell that many of the people I was telephoning were from an ethnic minority background. When, in accordance with the canvassing script, I asked them to itemise issues that they felt strongly about, almost all named immigration as their first or second choice without any prompting from me. Until then, I had never experienced ethnic minorities expressing concern about levels of immigration.
I believe the reason why the “immigrant = ethnic minority” association has broken down has been the high level of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe after the accession of Poland and nine other countries to the EU in 2004. For the first time, allegedly problematical immigrants were white, instead of having black or brown skins.
However the change in the way people think is not yet universal.
As an example, when I saw pictures of the recent Home Office “illegal immigrants go home” mobile advertisements, I was sceptical about whether they would achieve anything, but I did not feel offended, and did not regard them as coded language aimed at British citizens or foreign ethnic minority individuals lawfully present in the UK. However many people, both ethnic minorities and whites, did find them genuinely offensive and considered them as dog whistle politics with a real message of “ethnic minorities please leave.” Such reactions demonstrate that there is still a strong residual association in many peoples’ minds between expressing concern about immigration (even illegal immigration) and racism.
We need to remain acutely conscious of how our words will be perceived by voters. Since we cannot expect a fair hearing (e.g. the case of the mobile adverts) we need to anticipate possible adverse reactions by emphasising the fairness of our policies, and to recognise the issues they present for some groups. For example:
- At every opportunity, we should emphasise that the citizens of a country always have an absolute right to decide who is allowed to immigrate into it. This may sound unexceptional, but the reality is that many people who protest about immigration controls have never really thought about their position on that most fundamental of questions.
- Requiring potential immigrants to be fluent in English poses no problems for any Australians, but can be challenging for many black or brown foreigners. We should stick to our guns on the policy, but at every opportunity emphasise the many millions of non-white English speakers in countries such as the Philippines and India.
- The requirement for a UK based spouse to have a particular level of earnings before their foreign spouse can immigrate to the UK is protested by many people from an ethnic minority background. We should stick to the policy while emphasising that it is applied to spouses of all ethnicities, and remind complainants that all British taxpayers have a vested interest in not having incoming spouses become a burden to the taxpayer.