Brown-Duffy is normalising prejudice against immigrants

By Simon Barrow
April 29, 2010

The mainstream media, not least the BBC, has lapped up Gordon Brown's gaffe over the voter he called bigoted yesterday. But its portrayal of the incident has much more insidiously 'normalised' anti-immigrant prejudice - and that is not being talked about. It should be.

Before looking at the treatment of immigration issues in this context, it is worth attending to the details of the Brown-Duffy encounter once again, because much of the press and television coverage has obscured them.

What offended Mr Brown in the first instance, it seems, is the comments Gillian Duffy, (a "65-year-old widowed pensioner from Rochdale") made about immigrants in the course of expressing her concern about health, education and jobs for hard-pressed people such as herself.

She declared in the televised encounter: "You can't say anything about the immigrants ... but all these eastern Europeans what are coming in, where are they flocking from?"

The Prime Minister responded by talking about the cycle of a million people coming into the country and a million people going out. He subsequently reiterated his party's points-based approach to managing (im)migration.

Then when he got into his car, with his microphone still switched on, he muttered to his entourage, "She was just a sort of bigoted woman. She said she used be Labour. I mean, it's just ridiculous." (A fuller transcript can be found here.)

As has been well recorded, Mr Brown has repeatedly apologised, spoken to Mrs Duffy on the phone and spent 40 minutes talking to her at home. Undoubtedly it was a major diplomatic failure, revealing his frustration, impatience and temper - though the built-in hypocrisy of a lot of the synthetic outrage whipped up by a media pack and blogosphere, which is salivating for political blood, is that we have all been there. And not just politicians. Unwise and unkind words probably pass the lips of most people, most days. That does not make us or Mr Brown right. But some perspective and honesty is called for.

There is also a significant 'class and education factor' at work. Gillian Duffy's sense of baffled rage was not specific or articulate. The disconnect between the understandable if inchoate sense of fury felt on the streets, contrasted with the clipped cadences of electoral reassurance expressed by an under-pressure prime ministerial candidate with a vibrant intellect but a short fuse, should not be underestimated. It is not fair or right to dismiss or ridicule Mrs Duffy... and yet simply affirming her views is inappropriate, too.

It is plain patronising to pretend that an "average Rochdale pensioner's comments" on immigrants, whether shared by a large percentage of others or not (the BBC, in particular, is keen to suggest that they are legion) were not shaped by visceral feelings and, from the way they were expressed, strong prejudice.

In a sense it was somewhat cheering that Mr Brown showed an equally visceral distaste for those expressions ("It was a question about immigration that really I think was annoying", he said afterwards), even if the way that this was done was inappropriate. But his response to the issue at the time and his subsequent comments later showed continuing signs of pandering to prejudice. That for me is the most serious issue. Not that the other parties can crow. With some honourable exceptions, like the Greens, the anti-immigrant bias of the political and media systems in this country is marked and deeply disturbing.

Mr Brown's first response to Mrs Duffy was to quote statistics. As it happens, he got them wrong. For the specific period her referred to, the Office of National Statistics indicates that 1.792 million Europeans were coming into the UK, while around 1 million were leaving. But this also does not tell the full story. Migration of labour in Europe is cyclical, changing and shifting. Net migration in the UK has actually been falling in recent years. In any case, the 'numbers game' is unreliable, ignores the real global issues, and marginalises or dismisses the genuine human experiences involved - as Vaughan Jones powerfully shows in his Ekklesia article Why the 'immigration debate' is so misleading.

Mr Brown's subsequent comment was as revealing as the one from Mrs Duffy - perhaps more so, given the thought behind it. "[S]he was raising with me was an issue of immigration and saying that there were too many people from eastern Europe in the country." But not too many Americans or Australians, say? What are we to make of that? How do we know when there are "too many" people from a particular ethnic background? Why does this matter?

The discourse here simply assumes as a matter of 'common sense' (what is commonly thought, not what is necessarily right) that immigration is always a 'problem', that the problem is 'foreigners' (Eastern Europeans are "the new Asians" for prejudicial response, a commentator said on BBC Newsnight), and that the answer is not to address how and why people move, often under duress, but to pursue a 'numbers game' premised on the idea that there is a 'full up' notice about to appear outside UK Plc. All this in turn extrapolates people movement from movement of capital (which is positively encouraged) and fails to examine the resource and environmental questions which are at very the heart of population sustainability.

In other words, the mainstream consensus over what constitutes "the immigration debate" in Britain is broken, unrealistic, inhuman, based on fear more than facts, and deeply racially and ethnically ingrained (if not outrightly racist).

The underlying fault here is not the BNP (detestable though its views and policies are, followed at close hand by UKIP), but legitimating rhetoric of so-called mainstream parties - who have long pandered to tabloid sensationalism, failing to address underlying issues around migration, blaming those who are often victims (many asylum seekers and refugees), and working from the false assumption that a good dose of racism at the borders will reduce racism inside them. The evidence, cited recently by IPPR, is that the contrary is the case.

Sadly, the ridiculously overblown Brown-Duffy spat has simply reinforced these stereotypes - and the media, not least the BBC, which yesterday pronounced the comments about Eastern Europeans "acceptable" and "normal" (a correspondent on the Radio 4 PM programme), is equally culpable.

Some years ago I used to live in a conurbation where a small white population felt alientated by the huge demographic and cultural change happening around them. This was exacurbated because they suffered from multiple social and economic deprivation, and because it was easy for some within and without to try to turn this into a race and immigration issue. The answer, we found, was to engage people on all sides. To take their concerns seriously, yes, but then to struggle for real economic and social change for everyone, but especially marginalised groups from all backgrounds. This also involved (and involves) giving people the respect of seeking to move beyond gut feelings and expressions of resentment to ways of getting to the core causes of our shared human problems. And it means priority support for communities facing rapid population change or transition.

What we should not do is continue to 'normalise' prejudice against immigrants. That is what is happening at the moment - not least through the 'mood music' on immigration pumped out across the airwaves, online and in print.

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