On 27 April 1968, Richard Crossman reflected in his diary on Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Powell had delivered the speech a week earlier in a bid to bypass elite opinion on immigration by mobilising the public against Britain’s nascent multiculturalism. Although worried by the support Powell had attracted, Crossman thought that in the last resort the British political system had crucial safeguards against the corrosive effects of such uninhibited populism:
“The British constitution is like a rock against which the wave of popular emotion breaks, and one hopes that after a time the tide will go down and the rock stand untouched. This is the strength of our system, that, though in one sense we have plebiscitary democracy, actually the leadership is insulated from the masses by the existence of parliament. Parliament is the buffer which enables our leadership to avoid saying yes or not to the electorate in the hope that, given time, the situation can be eased away.”
How different the debate over immigration is today, we might think, as parliament now stands cowed by the ultimate populist weapon of the referendum and the noisy anti-elitist rhetoric of the press. After all, a familiar story about the years after 1968 is that the political elite dutifully closed ranks to marginalise Powell and accept – however fitfully and incrementally – a multicultural destiny for Britain.
In contrast, the current British political elite has been fractured and immobilised by the implications of leaving the EU and the role played in that decision by the toxic debate about immigration. We might easily conclude that a decline in the authority of parliament – and in the confidence of politicians to lead public opinion – lies at the root of the problem.
Crossman and restrictive immigration
Why was immigration policy not liberalised?
The cross-party consensus on immigration was that an externally restrictionist policy should be combined with (avowedly non-Powellite) efforts to integrate racial minorities into British society and promote equal opportunities between ethnic groups. Although the solidity of this cross-party position frayed somewhat under the Thatcher government, immigration policy debate nonetheless remained largely within the lines drawn up during the Wilson and Heath governments.
Blairite immigration policy
This historical background throws into relief the distinctiveness of British immigration policy since 1997. It is well known that the Labour government elected in that year decided to admit EU citizens from the new accession states into the British labour market in 2004 when most other EU states imposed transitional controls on free movement. But it is less widely recognised that this was only one element of a radical recasting of British immigration policy that took place under Tony Blair.
A settlement for the Brexit age
The politics of immigration in Britain has therefore become more keenly contested than in earlier decades because for the first time British politics is grappling with the legacy of a government that was broadly in favour of greater immigration and the rise to electoral significance of a group of voters who believe immigration has been beneficial for the country. In spite of the defeat to this worldview registered by the EU referendum, there still remains greater political space for a liberal immigration regime in Britain than ever before.
And it is here that political leadership enters the picture once again. While we should not be nostalgic about earlier political elites, it is clear that our current leaders are failing to rise to the occasion. An immigration policy that can command public support will be central to any settlement of Britain’s exit from the EU. It is still highly likely that whatever policy emerges will be a relatively liberal one by historical standards, not least because a modern service economy like Britain’s requires openness to people as well as goods to flourish.
Yet politicians of all parties apparently cannot find the right words to explain why this is on balance a desirable outcome or how it might fit with a persuasive story about Britain as a liberal, inclusive polity. This failure to lead leaves an immigration debate dominated by self-appointed spokespeople who delight in oversimplifying the complex crosscurrents of public opinion.
But one lesson of Powell is that alarmism about immigration always ends up redounding to the discredit of its exponents, as the incomers of today become the valued citizens of tomorrow. In due course the judgement of history will be rendered on those who have trafficked in a similar discourse today. The question is how much damage to Britain’s social amity and economy they will be permitted to do along the way.
This article will be published in upcoming issue of the Political Quarterly journal.