Debate Night Special

by Tom George Hammond

I actually have nothing of any use or originality to say on the topic at all, although there was a very specific claim that Boris Johnson slipped in three quarters of the way through the debate which piqued my interest.  The moment was cut off by applause from Johnson’s own supporters, but while he was attacking Labour’s Brexit policy, Johnson repeated the claim that his government would set in place an Australian points-based immigration system, post-Brexit.  This is not the first time that the Conservative Party have made a pledge for the UK to adopt that system, as Michael Howard was pushing for the same system in his campaign for office in 2005.  The popularity of the pledge meant that Labour, despite winning in another landslide victory, implemented a point-based system based partially on the Australian model, which was formally introduced in 2008.  After the new immigration policy came to pass, it swiftly fell apart, and was almost entirely abandoned by the new Conservative government that came to power in 2011.  Even if Johnson seems particularly plagued by political amnesia, he would probably remember how Theresa May stated she would not pursue a new implementation of a points-based system in 2016, because it was too soft for her own failed plans of reducing Britain’s yearly intake of migrants.  One imagines that Johnson regurgitates an old-hat line about Australia’s immigration system because it sounds, to his base, like a sexy new idea, rather than a failed policy that his predecessors discarded.

Why then does Johnson dub it “an Australian points-based system” instead of, say, a “Canadian points based-system”?  Canada, after all, has a hawkish addition to its system of immigration, in which any company sourcing a foreign worker must indicate that they cannot hire a Canadian citizen first.  That surely would appeal to a base concerned with the plight of British workers in a crowded employment market, but I imagine that Johnson would be reluctant to tout a “Canadian” system of migration because invoking Canada would equate to invoking Trudeau and globalism and, most damningly of all, woolly liberalism.  Australia, or the conservative British fantasy of Australia, means a majority-white society, a right-of-centre government, and also (probably) sun and barbeques and happiness and other nice things.  There’s been a myth that’s bounced around, through all Brexit discussion, that Britain could quite happily just morph into another country through various trade negotiations.  The soft Brexiteer may still advocate for Britain to strive for a “Norway model” of relationships with the EU, but Britain, crucially, is not Norway and does not have Norway’s economy.  Nor is Britain much like Singapore, or indeed any other offshore tax haven that Johnson can stretch to think of.  Australia, Norway and Singapore are touted in pro-Brexit rhetoric because they are superficially attractive to the Conservative voter.  The idealized nations represent insularity, and insularity is the most blunt and immediate solution (or decisive non-solution) to a global problem.  As Slavoj Zizek observed; “there is no Norway, even in Norway”.

The debate between Johnson and Corbyn was unsurprisingly mostly predicated on the internal problem of the United Kingdom’s ongoing identity crisis.  The issue with discussion about Brexit is that it enveloped the immigration debate with it, and now it seems impenetrable to separate a vote to remain in the European Union with a pro-immigration stance.  This is, of course, not an issue for anyone opposed to mass immigration, but distinctly ties into how the Leave Campaign sold the EU to their own base.  When Nigel Farage stood beside the poster that declared “Breaking Point”, the natural anger and repulsion that arose from the statement of it meant that few challenged Farage’s specific portrayal of the EU itself.  The poster, and much of Farage’s rhetoric besides, sold the EU as an organisation that was actively aiding refugees to settle across the continent (the immigration debate and the global refugee crisis should not be linked together but frequently are), which is ironically a far nobler portrayal of the organisation than the reality.  Through a series of treatises and expenditure, the EU has done all it can to stop refugees from entering Europe, including troubling investments in Turkey and Libya which reports suggest risk ending up in the grasp of traffickers.  Even Tim Stanley of The Telegraph acknowledged the mistruth that the EU was an organisation that welcomed the refugee in his pro-Brexit op-ed in 2016; if a voter found appeal in the idea of access to the free market paired with an insular system of migration, they might well have been happier voting remain.  The global problem calls for a radical international system, fostered in part by a united Europe entering a cooperative dialogue about a mass resettlement of displaced citizens.  Instead, the urgency of the global problem has melted into apathy.  The stories of the struggle of the refugee became second-hand smoke, filtering conversations about Britain’s own future and identity.  It is almost as if a small group of capital-driven politicians with ties to the city used existential fears about immigration and a global refugee crisis to leverage a debate about membership to an enclosed neo-liberal trading organisation that did not offer them the tax breaks they wanted.

I digress.  Priti Patel launched herself as Theresa May’s heir apparent in the field of bullishly pointless stances about immigration after pledging that she could; “end the free movement of people once and for all” at the most recent Conservative Party Conference.  Again, Patel referred to the Australian point-based system as the golden ticket to achieving this aim, although the EU predictably already offers a harsher mechanism for unemployed migrants.  The crossfire of the immigration debate in the United Kingdom has been, since Theresa May’s comments about creating a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, kept teetering on the brink of naked populist anger.  The wave of populism that set across the Western world in 2016 essentially caught the global problem of the refugee crisis in a vice, and as the crisis spread many nations turned inwards and allowed the crisis to be resolved in hideous local non-solutions (in Calais there are reports of police brutality and harassment towards child refugees, in Australia there is a high rate of attempted suicides, and stories of young children with clinical depression).  In the United Kingdom, the refugee crisis is such a toxic political subject because it is bound in the contradictions of the Conservative Party’s push-me-pull-you attitude towards immigration, where immigrants are greeted with open arms and a frowning face.  The immigrant, in Conservative ideology, is an economic necessity and a socio-cultural nightmare, so one is used to watching Johnson or May or Patel talk about taking “control” and “protecting Britain” but really dithering (Johnson’s new favourite word) on the fine print.  In the discussion about the refugee crisis, the Tories used a similar tack, speaking sympathetically of the plight of the migrant but also of the natives who fear the impact of the global crisis.  This callous game of swing ball rhetoric keeps thousands of displaced citizens using impossibly dangerous routes to try and reach an increasingly indifferent United Kingdom, where the Conservative party straddles the anti-refugee voter with the business-minded voter by promising an immigration system that will attract and benefit only the right sort of migrant.