The BBC Today programme this morning reported an extraordinary shift in public opinion relating to immigration over the past three years. According to an apparently reputable recent survey, at the time of the Brexit vote only about a quarter of the population thought foreign immigration was on the whole good for Britain; now the figure is nearly two-thirds. (That’s what I heard on the radio; this report on the BBC’s website gives slightly different figures: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47428515.) There will be many reasons for this. It can’t be a decline in the number of immigrants, which hasn’t happened: the numbers from continental Europe have gone down (who in their right minds would want to come to Brexit Britain?), but that is compensated for by a rise in the number of extra-Europeans coming in. That may be puzzling to Brexiteers who voted that way in order to keep the darkies out. But, hey, that’s the British for you.
The BBC website suggests some other possible reasons. One is that the Brexit debate and its outcome may have focussed people’s attention for the first time on the facts of the matter, and the realities they can perceive around them; away, that is, from the distorted and selective propaganda foisted on them by the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail. If so, it’s one good thing to have come out of this whole sorry mess; albeit too late, probably, to have any positive effect.
Facts are important, whatever Michael Gove (‘we’ve had too much of experts’) and the other amateur postmodernists say. (It’s ‘experts’ who can establish the ‘facts’. That’s not to say that they always do.) Without facts, people usually form their opinions according to whom they trust. An example of this is the way the debate on alleged anti-semitism in the Labour Party now focuses entirely on what certain people think about it, without a single convincing piece of evidence being produced to attest to the phenomenon itself. In much the same way the current debate on Brexit is almost entirely about the motives of those who would like to reverse it, and the validity or otherwise of the 2016 vote in favour of it – ‘you lost, get over it’ – rather than about the strict merits (or demerits) of the case for Britain’s leaving the EU, as they have been more reliably revealed in the past three years. It’s almost as if the Brexiteers know they no longer have an objective case, and so are falling back on this kind of ad hominem argument, and in particular accusations of ‘treachery’, in order to win regardless. As they probably will.
Much of this arises from a lack of trust. People have become used to being lied to, by governments in particular. This has gotten even more common in recent years, with the elevation of obvious and amoral liars to high positions in government: Trump over the water, of course, and Boris Johnson here in the UK. It wasn’t always thus, incidentally, in periods – like the nineteenth century – when most British politicians prided themselves on their integrity. The public scepticism that this gives rise to is healthy in many ways, and of course is almost the prime quality required of a historian, or any kind of scholar; but only so long as it doesn’t morph into absolute cynicism, which not only mistrusts but also instinctively rejects anything that comes from an authority, or (these days) from an ‘elite’. True scepticism requires one to bear in mind the possibility that something might be true, as well as that it might not be; even, for example, something that is labelled a ‘conspiracy theory’. (People do conspire.) It also requires examining the facts, insofar as that may be possible, in order to determine whether a claim or statement is (or at least is likely to be) true.
The problem here, however, is that most people can’t or don’t bother to do that, but instead fall back on who said whatever it is, and what their feelings or prejudices are about them. If it’s in the Daily Mail, it must be right – or wrong. If it comes from a socialist, it’s probably biased; from a Right-winger, the same. If a Conservative government is saying it, it must be trusted – or not. If Trump claims it – ditto. If it’s on the BBC, like that survey of opinions towards immigrants, it must be reliable, or, alternatively, simply liberal establishment propaganda. It’s a convenient way of short-circuiting the need for proper thought and enquiry. And I suspect it’s what most people do.
Which is why – very incidentally – I’m having doubts now about the practice I adopted a few books ago of prefacing them with brief summaries of my own personal background and what might be loosely termed my ‘ideology’, in order to be honest with readers about where I was ‘coming from’ – or might be. I now think this may have been a mistake, if it leads people to attribute all my historical opinions and judgments to my background. I would vehemently dispute that my ideas are significantly determined by my class, my education, my gender, my nationality, even my politics, or anything else about me; apart from my passion for dispassionate enquiry. To either accept or to reject my writings because of who I am is simply lazy. The same is true on all sides of most of our more public debates.
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“I would vehemently dispute that my ideas are significantly determined by my class, my education, my gender, my nationality, even my politics, or anything else about me; apart from my passion for dispassionate enquiry.”
If, for some reason, instead of being brought up in the UK, you had been adopted and raised in Saudi Arabia by Islamist parents, you would have been sent to a school where the study of Islam dominated the educational system; you would have been taught to memorise large parts of the Qu’ran, its interpretation and understanding; your education would have been saturated by the influence of the Wahhabi-controlled curriculum. Your intellectual frame of reference would have been completely different from, and in conflict with, the one you acquired in England. Had you proceeded to post-graduate studies and research in Riyadh, for example, it is beyond the bounds of possibility that your writings would be same as those you have published in Hull and other centres of British academia.
This is not postmodernism: rather, it is a straight out application of Marx’s dictum that ‘social being determines social consciousness’.
Your books are excellent in every respect; however, they are manifestly typical of the writings coming out of left-liberal academia in the later years of twentieth century. They belong to a tradition of research and writing that you have inherited, used, improved and reproduced. This is one of the reasons why the books are worth reading. Presumably, you have also passed your frame of reference onto your students, who will, or have already, written in a similar vein to yourself.
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Points taken, Philip! I’ll respond properly later….
Perhaps, however, the fact that I do take your points suggests that I’m not as imprisoned in my social environment as I would be if that environment was, for example, religious-fundamentalist?
The ‘facts’ about immigration are obviously secondary to people who use the issue for ulterior purposes, whether directly or indirectly. Some politicians doing so have been scurrilous, others misguided, but for all of them the ‘evidence’ has rarely been produced and they have depended on emotional appeals and smear campaigns, e.g., the British Brothers League, Mosley and the BUF, Enoch Powell, National Front and many others since, reinforced by the right wing tabloids. When the loss of immigrant labour impacts on people’s lives it influences their opinions, i.e., the loss of immigrants who keep the NHS and the social services running, care of the elderly in the community and residential homes as well as the ‘gig’ economy which gets pizzas and parcels delivered. The prospect of these services diminishing due to immigration controls might provide a reality check, and make more people more favourable towards immigrants which might be happening now.
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