When Nigel Farage, the leader of a party that feels the need to define itself as ‘non-racist’ on its official website, thinks your immigration policy is ‘nasty and unpleasant’, then the chances are that something is wrong with it…
Last week, the Home Office launched a billboard campaign aimed at illegal immigrants, urging them to hand themselves in. The large billboards, placed on the back of vans, feature the slogan “Go home or face arrest” and are currently on a trial tour around six London boroughs with high immigrant populations. Illegal immigrants are told to text “HOME” to a number for free advice and help with travel documents. Mark Harper, the immigration minister, describes the initiative as “an alternative to being led away in handcuffs.”
David Cameron seems to be taking more and more leaves out of a right-wing popularist handbook, and is increasingly shadowing the behaviour of a party he once described as a collection of “fruitcakes” and “closet racists”. With the prospect of UKIP repeating their recent electoral success in next year’s European elections, the Prime Minister is trying to out-populist the champions of populism.
Irony died when Mr. Farage condemned this hard-line approach to immigration as nasty, but whilst his criticisms are ironic, there is truth in what he is saying. This campaign simply is nasty, divisive and pointless. Sure, it hammers home the message that the Conservatives are tough on immigration, but is it the right sort of tactic a responsible government should humour? The costs are sure to outweight the short-term electoral benefits.
Firstly, the campaign can be easily criticised as ‘nasty’ racist propaganda. Left-wing commentator Sunny Hundal drew obvious similarities between the Home Office’s ‘Go Home’ slogan and the rhetoric of the National Front and BNP. Whilst the adverts are not racist themselves, should the government be so brazen about promoting and pandering to the voices of the fringe right?
Secondly, why is a subject as delicate as immigration being handled so coldly and with such brashness? Instead of approaching it with some tactfulness, the government has made a habit recently of trying to look tough on immigration and coming across divisive. Earlier this month the Home Office controversially tweeted ‘there will be no hiding place for illegal immigrants with the new immigration bill’ alongside a picture of a dark-skinned man being led in to the back of a van by armoured policemen. Are whistle-dog tactics such as this wise at a time when British institutions are still accused of being racist?
In response to the launch of the billboard campaign, the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London held an ‘emergency tension-monitoring’ meeting with Home Office officials and warned that the initiative had created ‘a sense of apprehension, tension and confusion’ amongst its clients. For a ‘compassionate conservative’, Cameron has acted consistently callously in regards to immigration…
As well as being nasty and divisive, the effectiveness of such a campaign is doubtful. As Bishop Patrick Lynch identifies, the demographics of undocumented migration have changed in recent years. The vast majority of illegal immigrants are people who overstay the terms of their visas, especially students. So instead of parading around pseudo-fascist slogans in ethnically diverse boroughs of London to pick up the odd dissatisfied voter, the government ought to focus on working with institutions dealing with immigrants and our own border control to solve this issue. Prominent Conservatives such as Boris Johnson and Nadhim Zahawi back a one-off amnesty policy that would provide a boost to the economy coinciding with tougher border policies.
There are ways to solve the illegal immigration puzzle without resorting to the language and the tactics of the far right. Unfortunately this suggestion was rejected by the party hierarchy, who’ll have next year’s European elections in mind and irrationally fear a repeat of UKIP’s 2013 summer surge.
So whilst trying to appear strong and tough on illegal immigrants, the government in reality has come across nasty, divisive and incompetent. Over a decade ago, the current Home Secretary once bemoaned that some people thought the Conservative Party was “the nasty party.” One way of rectifying this would be to avoid decrepit political stunts such as this.
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