Friday, 7 May 2010


You might be forgiven if you'd thought effects of the collapsing Greek economy, triggering massive falls as far away as Wall Street,on Britain's fragile finances would have been the election's central issue. Instead, it was a different sort of Greek conflict that proved the election's key. Xenophobia may have originated in ancient Greece, but its power was manifest in the last week of the British campaign. In fact, Nick Clegg's downfall began the instant David Cameron managed to associate him with the desire to enter the 'Eurozone', and pointed out that if Britain had joined up to the Euro, it would now be committed to bailing out Greeks, who are, after all, foreigners, rather than 'saving' their own economy.

Yet xenophobia failed to figure in the discussions last night and today as election pundits struggled to explain why Clegg and his Liberal Democrats nose-dived so completely, failing to convert Clegg's strong poll numbers into victories in marginal constituencies. In the Lib-Dem's top target seat of Guildford, which borders my own constituency, the Tories actually increased their majority. The local Lib-Dems blamed it on being outspent by millions of Lord Ashcroft's non-dom pounds which the Tories brought in from Belize to target those marginals. Others attributed Clegg's fall-off to his lacklustre performance in the third TV debate, or to his gradual tarnishing as voters examined his policies more closely, or to his willingness to discuss coalitions which helped destory his image as the 'outsider', or even the success of Tory propaganda in convincing undecideds that they would 'vote for Clegg and get Brown'.

What made it worse was that the Lib-Dem decline began at just the moment Gordon Brown's televised 'gaffe' with Mrs. Gillian Duffy appeared to kill off his chances once and for all.

Coincidentally, it isn't difficult to pick out point at which the Tories drove the final nail into the Lib-Dem coffin. Having already lost his balance over the Euro, Clegg, like Brown toppled over and got skewered on the sharp stick of immigration. The moment David Cameron trapped Clegg on the issue of amnesty for illegal immigrants, those undecided Tory voters came swarming back up the ropes and onto the ship.

I have lived in this country legally for more than thirty years, but I am still an immigrant, and I recognise an appeal to xenophobia when I see one. When Gordon Brown muttered angrily that Gillian Duffy was bigoted, I wasn't shocked. Although throughout the first three weeks of the campaign he seemed intent on morphing into Anthony Hopkins playing Richard Nixon, what else would he call someone who wants to blame the problems of the country on people from other countries? When Cameron pulled the immigration rabbit out of his hat, Clegg tried to argue that his amnesty was directed toward people who'd lived here for ten years or more, people who were working and contributing to British society, not stealing benefit from hard-working unemployed British school-leavers. In the same vein, Gordon Brown tried to tell Mrs. Duffy that just as many Britons went overseas as foreigners came here, but she wasn't listening, and the argument went for naught as soon as Brown's exasperation was broadcast to Sky News.

As damage control set in, I then heard all three party leaders assure Mrs. Duffy (and us) that being anti-foreigner doesn't make one a bigot. They all agreed illegal immigrants were taking jobs from 'hard-working Britons'. If I'd realised it was that easy to find work, I would have gone illegal years ago. Being American, I also recognised that phrase 'hard-working' and know that it is code for the kind of families the BNP's Nick Griffin described as 'indigenous' to Britain. And no, by indigenous he doesn't mean Picts. It does not mean that they actually work hard, nor necessarily work at all, as anyone who drives past the ubiquitous unmanned road works, or those with twelve yellow vests watching one lean on a shovel could tell you.

In America, Hilary Clinton wasn't allowed to get away with using this coded language against Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries, but two years later all three parties raced, if you'll pardon the pun, to wrap themselves in the image of the cloth-capped Englishman working in factory five and half days a week. And the electorate, many of whom live in areas where the last factory packed up and left for China decades ago, were happy to accept the wrapping and ignore what lay underneath.

In that context it was somewhat reassuring, for an American remembering Florida in 2000 or Ohio in 2004, to watch reports about the malfunctioning of Britain's polling stations, of the hundreds turned away without a chance to vote, and particularly of the students in Sheffield forced to form separate queues from the 'local' voters and then denied ballot papers. That the student complaining about the lack of democracy to Channel 4 news came from Zimbabwe, and thus had no more logical right to vote than I did, simply added irony to the bizarre 'can't do' humour. And apparently, Afghan observers have declared the process free of any hint of fraud.

In the end, the Tories, sold the fear of immigration to 'hard-working' Brits better than the other two parties, and kept firm that third of the electorate who mistrust any new neighbours. People forget that it was Mrs. Thatcher, not the Anti-Nazi movement, that killed off Britain's National Front three decades ago, by appropriating their concerns into the broad tent of Conservativism. Nothing much has changed since then, and now, thanks to first-past-the-post, with 36 per cent of the vote, Cameron will find himself with only a handful fewer seats than Labour and the Lib-Dems combined, who attracted 53% of the voters but will be unable to form a majority government even were they to coalesce.

The TV debates had turned Nick Clegg into the equal of the other two party leaders, but the vote has turned his party back into power brokers but minor players. A hung Parliament with a resurgent Liberal-Democratic party arguing justifiably they deserved a full share might have instigated change, might have kept either of the other parties from pursuing too extreme a course in the face of the hard times coming. And you'd think a country spending hundreds of millions mired in two wars, at least one of which was entered illegally, that there might be just a little debate on the effect of trying to be an imperial power on a staggering economy. But no.

The dirty little secret is that it was the immigration issue that stopped that happening, that neutralised the debates, that returned the system to its chaotic status quo. And no one but immigrants is allowed to admit it.

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