Mainly because my own apathy makes me feel slightly guilty. I know how hard the suffragettes fought to ensure my entitlement to vote. I can see the argument for not having any right to complain about government policy if you can't even be bothered to engage in the political process. I also know that my genuinely held and heartfelt opinion of politicians in general (that they're all a bunch of unrepresentative tossers) is neither adding anything to the conversation, nor a particularly intelligent thing to say. I read Deeply Flawed but Trying, Used to be Somebody, and the Enemies of Reason, and I feel slightly embarrassed about being so, well.... slack.
Which is why I had decided to butt out.
But now of course we have 'Bigotgate' and it seems that I can hold back no longer.
As I'm sure most of us are aware by now, the other day whilst out canvassing on the streets of Rochdale our Prime Minister Gordon Brown met 66 year old retired council worker Gillian Duffy who quizzed him on various aspects of labour policy - including immigration. In fact her exact words were:
"You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're..... but all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"
Well now... let me think. Where could immigrants from eastern Europe possibly be coming from? Ahem, but seriously, I'm sure we're most of us familiar with what happened next too. Gordon Brown got into his car and - forgetting that his mic was still switched on - described Ms Duffy as a "bigoted woman." The ensuing scandal has dominated the electoral news coverage ever since. Brown has been forced to apologise to Duffy in person, and any slim hopes that Labour had of being re-elected appear cruelly dashed.
What I am interested in is not whether Ms Duffy is or is not a bigot - everyone is entitled to their view after all - but what the medias response has been to the whole embarrassing exchange. Duffy it seems is being held up as a paragon of moral virtue, a woman who was not afraid to speak the truth, a lone brave voice in the wilderness who has been unfairly demonised for daring to utter the 'I' word. But wait.... last time I looked at the news it was in fact the Prime Minister who was being demonised for daring to call a woman he thought was bigoted - a bigot. I have only ever seen Duffy being portrayed as some sort of courageous heroine - a true woman of the people. I fully expect to see 'Gillian Duffy for PM' t-shirts on sale before the week is out.
One of the most compelling arguments against so called political correctness is that it stifles debate - that it tells people how to think and how to speak and so leaves no room for dissenting opinions. This backlash has been eagerly co-opted by all sorts of groups and institutions, from the tabloid media to the BNP who have used it to try to paint themselves as a disenfranchised minority, daring to say the unsayable on behalf of a muzzled British public. Look again at the first line of Duffys quote: "You can't say anything about the immigrants because you're saying that you're...." Racist, is what I presume she would have said if she hadn't trailed off. It's a popular point of view - that one can't initiate any sort of discussion about immigration without being labelled a racist - but one which is so patently untrue that I am always reminded of the Orwellian concept of doublethink every time I hear it. Discussions about immigration are everywhere! It was discussed openly on the live televised debates between the political leaders - indeed I remember quite clearly them all falling over themselves to show how they would be the 'toughest' on immigration - with Cameron promising to introduce caps and Brown vowing to implement an Australian inspired points based system. There was also a Panorama programme entitled Is Britain Full? aired on prime time BBC recently. Every single day there are newspaper headlines and articles devoted to discussing immigration, and almost without exception they are negative. Ms Duffy certainly had no qualms about bringing the subject up in a very public setting - did she appear genuinely worried that she would be lambasted as a bigot? No she did not.
Of course wanting to have a debate about immigration does not make you a bigot. When you consider what is published in some newspapers as 'facts' about immigration, and the fears that some political parties attempt to whip up in the hope that it will land them some more votes, it is hardly surprising that people feel concerned. Honest and open discussion is always to be encouraged, especially around sensitive topics such as this.
So for my own contribution to this debate I would like to make the point that the hostilities towards and arguments against immigration have not changed over centuries. From the French protestant Huguenots driven to Britain as a result of religious persecution in the eighteenth century, to the Russian Jews who came to Britain in the nineteenth century in order to escape the vicious pogroms taking place in their home land and who went on to create a thriving textile industry, to the West Indian migrants arriving on board The Empire Windrush in 1948, to the Eastern European economic migrants of today, the arguments against their being allowed to settle here have always been the same - that it is too much of a burden on our country and that there is not enough room, that it places too much strain on housing and swallows up jobs that should be going to the 'indigenous' population, and that it will dilute our cultural identity. Here then is my attempt to provide some counter to these arguments:
There's this which I blatantly stole from The Angry Mobs article, Let's have a talk about immigration:
A Home Office research study found that, in 1999/2000, first generation migrants in the UK contributed £31.2 billion in taxes and consumed £28.8 billion in benefits and public services – a net fiscal contribution of £2.5 billion3.
The overall number of asylum seekers in industrialized nations was stable in 2009, according to the UNHCR provisional statistical report that measures asylum levels and trends in industrialized nations.
"The notion that there is a flood of asylum seekers into richer countries is a myth," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "Despite what some populists claim, our data shows that the numbers have remained stable."
This from the Equality and Human Rights Commission:
The vast majority of people who live in social housing in Britain were born in the UK according to a research study published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission today. The study found that less than two per cent of all social housing residents are people who have moved to Britain in the last five years and that nine out of ten people who live in social housing were born in the UK.And this from Immigration Matters:
Record numbers of people are leaving Britain at the same time as immigration is slowing down, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics.In the first half of 2007, only 17,360 Bulgarians and Romanians arrived in the UK, far below many expectations of up to 300,000 in the first year.
Experts believe that without immigration to the UK the population could go into decline, shrinking the working age population and compounding the problem of how to support an ageing society.
I'm not trying to pretend that multi-culturalism poses no problems whatsoever. Elements of different cultures can sometimes clash, assimilation will always mean different things to different people. But the benefits of immigration have always far superceded any negatives. Everybody has the right to try to improve their lot. Let's not allow our opinions to become hijacked by a right-wing media and the politicians who must pander to it in order to have any chance of achieving power.
One last link: I read this really interesting take on Bigotgate and the conspicuous absence of women in the run up to the election at Wife in the North - I recommend you head on over and have a look.