Alistair Burt is a former Foreign Office Minister and is MP for North East Bedfordshire.
I’m not sure whether to be surprised or not that the significant New Year addresses by the German Chancellor, and French and Italian Presidents have attracted no comment that I have seen from UK political leaders.
Each of them took the opportunity to confront the wave of right-wing populism surfacing in their countries, focused on race and immigration, threatening the major established parties, and warning that beneath issues of policy important to all lurked, in Chancellor Merkel’s words “prejudice and hate”.
Each faces the challenge of Far Right movements gaining support, and using rhetoric and mass demonstrations just push just a little bit further than anything we have yet seen in the UK, against a backdrop of rising immigration to the EU which itself is emerging from a perfect storm of economic, political and conflict drivers.
We all know there are few simple answers to these problems be found – from the humanitarian dilemma of how to respond to the catastrophic numbers of religious and other refugees from the Middle East to the economic need for a whole raft of workers with different skills both to arrive in the EU and move around it.
But at least these leaders set their faces publicly against the easy populist answers they are hearing in their own states. They are no doubt fearfully aware of the echoes from the past and, being very conscious of history, of how easy it is to see something like the protests of Pegida and the Alternative for Germany and the French National Front turn into something much more frightening and destructive.
If we believe that we are immune from UK populism lurching in this direction we only fool ourselves. Such stuff lurks just under the surface of any modern Western state, and no amount of reminiscing over world wars of the past and saying “Never Again” can overcomes the “evil running through all men’s hearts” that Solzhenitsyn spoke of.
During the past few days, I have heard two comments from friends in my constituency which reminded me of the need for Conservatives not to be shy about these issues.
A businessman, himself from a foreign background, who has made and run a successful enterprise in this country, explained to me that members of his skilled work force, which of necessity must include those from abroad, are now frightened by what they read in some national newspapers and hear from some politicians – so much so they wonder if they have a future here.
And a leader in the NHS who recruits nurses from abroad told me that some recruits, needed to fill gaps at a local hospital, have refused to come to Britain after hearing of campaigns against such recruitment, fearing what they might experience if they were to work for the British public here. This was despite originally accepting offers to come.
There are two challenges for the Conservative Party. The first is to continue to work to find and promote policies which will address the underlying issues – and not, to borrow from Labour’s handbook, to seek to “move the conversation on”. The second is to be as clear about the risks of easy populism as the German Chancellor.
When the most successful European leader of current times moves her wagons to the centre ground on this issues – not chasing the populists to the right, but standing up to them, confronting the difficulties surrounding the economic need for free movement and immigration, and saying that she is proud that the children of persecuted parents can grow up free in her country, I think such remarks are worthy of comment and to be taken note of.