Let’s talk immigration.
Not long after I moved to Sweden, something unprecedented and rather fascinating happened in Swedish politics.
Following the September 2014 general election, the Social Democratic Party were in power – just. They formed a minority coalition government which soon turned out to be almost completely unworkable. By December the Prime Minister felt forced to call a new election after their budget had failed to pass through the Swedish parliament.
This snap election ultimately didn’t happen, because when it became apparent that it would result in more seats going to Sweden Democrats (an anti-immigration party, Sweden’s answer to UKIP or perhaps more accurately the BNP), the Social Democrats and the conservative Moderate party decided to work together to secure political stability for the existing – albeit weak – government.
This highlights one of the biggest differences between the UK and Sweden in terms of the political landscape. In the UK, where increasing public concern about immigration has led to the rise of the hateful, racist UKIP, the mainstream parties have consistently pandered towards those who hold anti-immigration views (with, for example, Labour’s mug-based promise to bring in “controls on immigration”) rather than challenging those racist views on the basis of the facts. Immigration – and our membership of the European Union – substantially benefits the UK, both socially and economically, but rather than having the guts to say so, both Labour and the Tories have moved their policies further and further towards UKIP’s isolationist stance.
Meanwhile in Sweden the two main parties were so determined not to bow to that agenda that they were willing to cut across party lines and effectively decide the entire outcome of the election purely based on keeping anti-immigration policies off the table.
There’s an argument to be made that this only adds fuel to the fire of the Sweden Democrats and their supporters who often claim to be silenced and censored by the politically correct, left-wing Swedish establishment. But it’s certainly very interesting as a lesson in comparative politics.
In any case, it’s an issue that I’ve been following closely in both countries. I have always been broadly pro-immigration but given my newfound status as an immigrant myself, I am more emotionally tied into the debate than ever before. If the UK were to exit the EU, for example, it would have significant consequences for me personally and for the other 1.8 million British immigrants abroad in Europe.
I also can’t help but think about all of my friends, colleagues and loved ones for whom the openness of the European Union has meant the freedom to pursue the life that they want. Whether it was to get the best possible education, to get out of a country full of poverty and misery, to escape systemic homophobia, or to give their children the best possible life, everyone I know who has been an immigrant in the UK or Sweden has a compelling story to tell.
My vested interest in this issue has left me in a bit of a quandary when it comes to the quickly-advancing UK general election on the 7th May. As a former, disillusioned, Lib Dem voter who was attracted by their left-of-Labour policy platform circa 2005-10, I ought to be low hanging fruit for “Red” Ed Miliband’s Labour party.
But then Labour made cracking down on immigration a keystone of their manifesto and started proposing measures such as withholding benefits from immigrants until they have worked in the UK for two years. So keen is Miliband on this particular policy that he jumped to mention it as a – not particularly edifying – answer to Jeremy Paxman’s question, “do you think Britain is full?”, during their televised interview.
How can I, as an immigrant myself, endorse or turn a blind eye to a policy like this, whose only goal is to make life harder for immigrants and send a clear message to the electorate: “don’t worry, we hate them too”? The party which feels like it ought to be my natural political home has… not exactly deserted me, but deserted everyone like me who just happens to have been born in another country.
At the risk of understating it, immigration is a subject that brings up strong feelings. The knee-jerk psychological reaction that people have when they see the makeup of their country visibly changing is understandable – but it is just a psychological reaction. It’s very telling that the areas of the UK where support for UKIP is highest do not match up at all to areas where there is a significant immigrant population. The problems that they believe exist do not exist.
Immigrants are not taking your jobs. Benefit tourism is not a thing. What is happening is that people, resourceful people, ambitious people, can see a chance to make a better life for themselves in the UK. And when they come here, they put more in than they take away.
It disgusts me that this country’s most prominent and powerful politicians lack the courage to put their heads above the parapet and say as much. It wouldn’t be popular. It might not make much difference. But when I look at immigration politics in the UK, I see Britain at its worst.
By putting aside the facts – and, I suspect, their own private convictions – and buying into the populist hysteria about immigration, our politicians are contributing to a narrative that refuses to see immigrants as people but merely as problems.
And nothing could have made clearer how dangerous that narrative is than the horrifying recent news of the thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean sea – lives of human beings, men and women, children and adults, who for one columnist in a major national newspaper were no better than cockroaches.
I’m still not certain who I’ll be voting for on the 7th May, but when it comes to the longer term political future, god knows we could stand to learn a few things from the Swedes.