Among the many outraged voices at the the use of vans to tell illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrest”, perhaps the most surprising was that of the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who called the message “nasty, unpleasant”. Farage’s position on the issue was unexpected, given UKIP’s fiercely anti-immigrant stance at present. Yet if Farage is wily enough, his intervention could mark the start of a more nuanced position on immigration, with major strategic benefits for the party.
The argument I envisage UKIP making, basically, is that these desperate and illiberal measures are a consequence of the UK’s membership of the membership of the European Economic Area, which compels Britain to allow entry to all EEA citizens. Since visitors from the EEA account for 70% of arrivals to the UK, the Conservatives are forced to squeeze the remaining 30% as hard as they can – too hard, even for UKIP’s liking – to meet their targets on reducing net immigration to the “tens of thousands”. By contrast, UKIP, Farage can say, would simply pull out of the EEA, restrict migration from Europe, and do away with the heavy-handed approach of this current government towards other immigrants. If he is bold enough, Farage would criticise policies such as immigrant bonds, spot checks and requiring landlords to be informants. In sum, Farage could stand against the idea that Britain should be the “hostile environment” for immigrants that the current government seems to envisage, with the promise that UKIP offer a more humane way to keep immigrant numbers down.
The big advantage of this position would be to give UKIP some defence against the accusations of racism that are bound to pursue a right-wing party by showing a willingness to stand up for vulnerable minorities. If UKIP are to break into the mainstream, they need to be seen as a respectable and non-racist – these sorts of positions would go a long way to making them credible. They would also strengthen their claim to be an alternative to an increasingly out of touch and broken political elite.
Of course, the strategy brings risks. If Farage and the UKIP leadership do not really believe the position I am sketching out, then it is likely to ring hollow. Moreover, this strategy would require UKIP to defend predominantly non-white (non-EU) immigrants at the expense of predominantly white (EU) immigrants. Insofar as their support genuinely is racist, it might abandon the party. But then, it might be in the long-term interests of UKIP to trade some of these core backers for a more moderate audience.
A more interesting question is whether such a shift would be good for British politics. On the one hand, any move that tries to make the immigration debate less toxic and which tries to move beyond demonising migrants is bound to do some good. Further, it could encourage some interesting and productive coalitions between left and right, much needed in an area that doesn’t cleanly divide left and right. Then again, I can’t help but revolt against anything that gives UKIP and their brand of unreconstituted conservatism and libertarianism more influence.But it would certainly be compelling to watch…