Blair not the man to lead Brexit fightback

Picture of Tony Blair wearing a dark suit with a pinkish/purple tie with a microphone attached, standing in front of a blue backgroundThe former British prime minister, Tony Blair, today gave a speech in the City of London in which he declared that Brexit could be defeated if the people who opposed it “rise up” (the BBC have a video of part of the speech here). In the speech, hosted by Open Britain (the successor to Britain Stronger In Europe), in keeping with his previous positions on the subject, he is expected to say that “the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit” and while “the will of the people” should be respected, that opinion might change when the true costs of leaving the EU become clear:

Our challenge is to expose relentlessly the actual cost, to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge, to calculate in easy-to-understand ways how proceeding will cause real damage to the country and its citizens and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.

The problematic part of Blair’s speech concerns immigration. The Guardian notes that “many of his critics have accused him of presiding over a wave of immigration from eastern European countries without being straight with the electorate about its likely magnitude”. Yet instead of taking on the anti-immigrant argument head-on, he seeks to divert it towards what he sees as less desirable immigrants:

There is in some parts of the country a genuine concern about numbers from Europe – real pressures on services and wages. But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries, especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.

“Nonetheless, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit, involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities, to the primacy of one consideration – namely controlling immigration from the EU – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about.

This goes to the heart of his policy towards east European immigration during the mid-2000s. The first set of east European countries (other than former East Germany) to join the EU did so in 2004, a year before the July 2005 London bombings, but it was three years into the “War on Terror” and three years after the Oldham riots. Muslim immigration was already being blamed for causing a breakdown of “social cohesion”, for fostering inward-looking communities which bred extremism. In the immediate aftermath of Oldham the problem of ‘segregated’ neighbourhoods and schools was raised, but “bringing brides from the village back home” (and the fact that the spouses rarely spoke good English) was widely blamed for the problems of ‘segregation’ — racism and discrimination in the job market was generally overlooked. Yet it was generally accepted that the country needed workers; few British people wanted to do low-skilled jobs that did not pay much.

Blair calculated that the labour shortage caused by shutting off the flow of south Asian immigrants could be plugged by allowing unrestricted immigration from the new EU countries of Eastern Europe, which it should be remembered that the rest of Europe did not, and which also had not been allowed immediately when Spain and Portugal joined the then EEC. He may have underestimated the numbers who would come, but I believe he also calculated that they would not provoke much opposition because they were white and Christian and would “blend in”, and likely be quickly assimilated into the local populations (doubtless he approved of the idea of them filling up empty churches, particularly Catholic ones, as well). This speech demonstrates that he has not moved on from his thinking then and not realised his mistake. He believes in the EU as a union of Christian nations, effectively a “fortress Europe”. (I actually dispute that “many people” were that concerned about Muslim immigration; the numbers were much smaller than the flood of migrants from eastern Europe, who went to different parts of the country and did entirely different jobs from the Asian immigrants. The opposition was much greater from the outset.)

Some people are saying we should not concentrate too much on the messenger but focus on the message. While I am not going to abandon the campaign to stop Brexit just because Blair is part of it — I always knew he was pro-EU, both while in power and during the referendum campaign — he is not the right person to lead it. Apart from being discredited for taking this country into war on false grounds against public opposition, his policies both electorally and in office are the reason we are in the mess we are in now. We don’t need the fightback against Brexit to feature side-swipes against groups of immigrants (including eastern Europeans, as they are here now and have children born here, some of them with British partners) or minorities. We should not be fighting for a white, monocultural fortress Europe; we need to rise above the bigotry and fear that characterises the Brexit campaign.

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