The manipulation of public anxiety about immigration has become an important element in party politics here in Britain. With the economy flatlining, against a background of a million job vacancies, debilitating understaffing in the NHS and social care, hostility to immigration seems odd. But at a time of economic distress, an appeal to xenophobia, subtle or open, and the stoking of anger against urban elites, (sometimes merited) brings approval and votes — as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has recently demonstrated.
Anti-immigration rhetoric offers a scapegoat for a plethora of ills, including the failure of governments to provide hope, justice and a sense of wellbeing for their citizens. From an America further divided by Trump to Orban’s authoritarian Hungary, democracy looks in bad shape. The reasons are varied, the problems seemingly intractable but, as Donald Tusk’s electoral victory in Poland over the Law & Justice Party (PiS) showed, the direction of travel is not always towards far-right extremism ((Denis McShane ‘Geert Wilders: far-Right bogeyman or old Dutch cheese’ 25 November 2023). And, yes, the far-Right can soften its position once in power.
Worldwide, political parties believe that if they are to have a reasonable hope of electoral success they must promise to control immigration. In Britain the fear of “them” taking our jobs, our housing, places in our schools, is an understandable consequence of growing impoverishment and the accelerating erosion of the welfare state with its universal public services. Voters’ number one priority according to UK opinion polls is the cost of living. For growing numbers in the lowest income decile in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, this means the lack of basic material necessities, not being able to make ends meet. Some 4.2 million British children are growing up in poverty.
Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown’s Business Secretary, speaking in 1998, was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich — as long as they paid their taxes”. By 2012 he had retracted these sentiments and was worried about rising inequality and failure to increase middle class disposable incomes. By 2021, the top decile in the UK owned almost half our national wealth. The bottom decile received c. 3%. Or put even more starkly, the richest 1% of the population were worth £2.8 trillion, more than the £2.4 trillion owned by 70%, some 48 million people.
Mandelson warned against “business and bank bashing”, yet banks make themselves targets. Money tucked away in tax havens is measured in billions, while investment in the UK continues to stagnate and investment bankers get richer alongside the CEOs of public companies. The salaries of CEOs in energy companies, and their shareholder dividends, are eye-watering — while their customers struggle with bills.
You will not find the word “inequality” in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s recent Autumn Statement. Nor did he quote the words of King Lear: “So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough”. Hunt’s “levelling up” measures mean an aspiration to equalise growth around the country; our geographical inequality is the worst in the OECD. His updating of benefits by 10% still leaves them at their lowest level since 1990. He does mention “poverty”, but close to the end of his speech and then only in the context of measures “to get people back to work”.
Britain has become one of the most unequal societies in Europe, more unequal than Romania and Latvia, according to the EU inequality index. Does it matter? Yes. In a new Cost of Inequality Report, the Equality Trust, a public policy think-tank, asserts that such a level of inequality “has made the UK more unhealthy, unhappy and unsafe than our more equal peers”. It puts the economic cost at over £100 billion.
The sense of injustice, of being ignored and looked down upon, can result in voters directing the contempt to which they feel subjected towards a political entity variously described as “the swamp”, “the blob”, “the chattering classes”, “the metropolitan elite”, and voting for the party that best seems to express their anger.
How else to explain voters’ enthusiasm for clever and dangerous, sometimes libertarian, clowns, unsuited for high office, who play the populist cards of immigration, Islamophobia, wresting control from the contemptuous elites? They include Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Milei in Argentina, Duterte in the Philippines, Meloni in Italy, Braverman in the UK. All march onto the political stage to the drumbeat of a dangerous form of nationalism.
The Indian academic Pankaj Mishra traces these developments back to the Enlightenment, which he sees as creating the myth and expectation of progress. His Age of Anger: A history of the Present, Penguin 2017, tracks what he terms ressentiment, an amalgam of anger and resentment created by socio-economic structures experienced by people treated as “superfluous”. The invention of the microchip in 1971 opened a new era in the history of ressentiment. The revolution in communications technology and social media, its virtual solidarities, have enabled both the spread and intensification of ressentiment, contributing to retrograde and tribalist forms of nationalism and generating violence. Witness the recent anti-foreigner riots in Dublin.
There can be no doubt that poverty, wars, and climate change will increase international migration. One of the great failures of Western leadership is the lack of any “strategic plan” (the words used by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the debates on the Government’s illegal Rwanda policy) to stabilise vulnerable economies in Africa and Asia, enabling their populations to stay at home and make a living. This requires the provision of a level of aid commensurate to the financial flows into Europe after World War II, and means debt relief, a generous Loss and Compensation Fund and more. Just as Austerity in Britain since 2010 and indifference to inequality and poverty are a national economic choice, with consequences we can see, so is refusal to face the magnitude of the problems confronting vulnerable countries around the world.
This failure of vision and courage has deep roots. Mishra, a secular socialist, describes Pope Francis — remarkably — as the “most convincing and influential public intellectual today”. He believes that Francis’ moral stature rests on his critique of the “ostensibly autonomous and self-interested individual’, a figure emerging during the Enlightenment and now confronting “an impasse”. In the current phase of globalisation, Mishra writes, this figure has descended into “either angry tribalism or equally bellicose forms of antinomian individualism”, the denial of shared moral values. His is a provocative but compelling portrait of populist politics.
If we are to survive the 21st century as civilised, diverse, and democratic societies, recognising our obligations under international law and preserving humanitarian values, voters must keep the clowns and extremists, the libertarians and newly minted “anarcho-capitalists”, and the recycled fascists, out of high office. It is a political imperative in this age of anger to seek leaders with a moral core of honesty, empathy, solidarity and responsibility, capable of reducing inequality. This quest must not remain a form of utopian eccentricity.
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