Picture credit: Touchpoint Politics

Winning the argument, losing the country

Winning debates is all well and good, but it does not represent political progress

Artillery Row

On Monday, University of Kent academic Matt Goodwin, Triggernometry host Konstantin Kisin, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, and Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani convened to argue if “Immigration [Is] Good For Britain?” As I sat in Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre, listening to the self-described “debate of our time”, I felt an unlikely kinship with Jeremy Corbyn. Repudiated by the British public in 2019, Corbyn insisted that he had lost the election, but won the argument. Likewise, Monday night felt like migration sceptics congregating to console ourselves over losing our country by winning an argument. 

By losing the country, I do not mean that opposing mass immigration is an unpopular position. As Goodwin reminded moderator Katy Balls, who opened the debate by calling it a “divisive issue”, ninety per cent of voters and eighty-six per cent of constituencies want more controls and lower net migration. Goodwin also noted that this position is popular with a public who underestimate the scale of net migration by a factor of ten. The electorate have voted to reduce immigration “to the tens of thousands” in every election for over a decade. They have received record annual increases of new arrivals instead. Now, Labour look to win the next election by default, because a third of Tories won’t vote at all. As Goodwin said, opening his remarks, they feel that they “are being lied to.”

The mood of the room was much the same. Hands raised at the start and end of the debate showed the audience was weighted immovably against immigration being good for Britain. It was confusing, then, that Bastani’s pre-planned tactic was to spend time convincing Conservative voters that their government is not conservative. Nobody on the stage or in the audience disagreed when he said Priti Patel, who presided over the unprecedented increase in immigration, is the most liberal Home Secretary Britain has ever seen. They applauded when Goodwin blamed Boris Johnson for loosening immigration laws after Brexit. Goodwin called what the government has inflicted on us “immigration austerity” — adopting the language used by Guardian critics of the Cameroon consensus. It began to sound as if Bastani had gotten lost on the way to scold a One Nation rally, and decided to deliver the same speech anyway.

Toynbee took a similar approach: arguing that, if we want the same institutions imposed by Atlee, and same liberal economics imposed by Thatcher and accelerated under Blair, then the question “Is immigration good for Britain?” must be answered with “We can’t do without it.” She asked the audience to “imagine what would happen if we deported everyone who was not born here,” forecasting the collapse of the economy, NHS, and social care. It was not explained to Toynbee that just seventeen per cent of NHS staff are foreign-born; which explains why it functioned just fine before 1997.

The pro-side of the panel were tilting at free-market-and-movement windmills

Bastani buttressed her point, saying that social care is staffed by foreigners with fraudulent qualifications, whose inability to speak English proves fatal, because asset management funds seek to drive down labour costs. But their interlocutors and the audience were not supporting microwaved neoliberalism. All advocated for a rethinking of the perverse economic incentives which rely on importing millions of foreign workers. Both Kisin and Goodwin agreed that we need to retain the third of British junior doctors who plan to move abroad, and could restructure the NHS to reduce endlessly escalating operating costs. Nobody on stage opposed social care reform. 70,000 care worker visas admitted last year only filled 11,000 vacancies. Everyone wants the horrifying levels of abuse in care homes to stop. But plugging holes with net-detractors from public services won’t fix long-term economic problems. The pro-side of the panel were tilting at free-market-and-movement windmills.

Toynbee seemed insistent on limitless immigrants being both a reluctant inevitability, and an axiomatic good. She remarked that to leave the ECHR would render Britain “a pariah state”, and so, because there was no other “way to send them all back… you might as well treat them nicely.” When Goodwin mentioned acid attacker Abdul Ezedi as an example of who exploits a permissive asylum system, Toynbee accused him of “bringing up an anecdote” and said he should be ashamed. Once the boos died down, Kisin rebuked her for maligning critics as “Far Right”, saying that, “If they were your children [doused in acid] you wouldn’t call it an ‘Anecdote’” and that, just because British people commit crimes, “that doesn’t mean we have to import foreign criminals.” Despite accusations of being a centrist dad, Konstantin came out strong in delineating immigrants on the grounds of their cultural contributions. Himself, born abroad, he belaboured the point that “Not all immigrants are the same: there are no Hong Kongese Grooming Gangs.”

They are wilfully inconsiderate of your concerns, because they consider the constituency of the egalitarian liberal project to be everyone, everywhere

Toynbee and her ilk frame the arrival of men such as Azedi to Britain as a foregone conclusion to be properly managed, rather than a political choice to be refused based on its harms to the native population. This mindset was exposed when she said, regarding a lack of consent for mass immigration, that “Of course people don’t feel like they have enough control in their lives. It’s called living in a democracy.” When she said “The reason most of the migrants are here because we want them”, the we in that sentence doesn’t mean the voting public, but rather the establishment who gaslight them with the dialectic that mass immigration is “an accident,” as inevitable as autumn following summer, and finally our sole strength which built Britain in the first place. They are wilfully inconsiderate of your concerns, because they consider the constituency of the egalitarian liberal project to be everyone, everywhere. 

However, despite the good intentions and reasoned arguments of both Goodwin and Kisin, Toynbee won the day. The reason: because nothing will change. Nobody in Westminster or Whitehall is listening. The debate felt much like watching senators in 410 AD suggest that it wasn’t the brightest idea to pay all those Visigoths to staff Rome’s armies. The sacking is already underway, and resorting to an eternal recurrence of conversations on the commentary circuit is paralysing our political moment. 

In Concept of the Political, Carl Schmitt observed that, in presuming itself neutral and apolitical, Liberalism blinds its adherents to existential threats. It marginalises division and abhors conflict; and in doing so, unilaterally disarms itself against those not above using lies and violence to achieve political ends. This is best observed in another exchange Matt Goodwin had, with Spiked columnist Ella Wheelan. When Matt proposed we deport and imprison anyone calling for jihad, intifada, or waving Hamas paraphernalia, Ella called this “an intolerant and illiberal approach.” Instead, she suggested we “have a debate” with the members of the proscribed terror group. Many commentators seem intent on negotiating with Jihadeans until the moment a machete makes contact with their neck. 

The suicidal assumption that debate and compromise can solve everything lays like a dead hand on our politics. If Monday’s debate amounts to nothing but an airing of grievances, then we remain trapped in that civilisational straight-jacket. We know we are far from power, and incapable of enacting our preferred policies. In the meantime, we content ourselves with airing our grievances and firing one-liners at our opponents. But while that anaesthetises the pain, it doesn’t prevent the affliction from metastasising until it is terminal. 

The crowd declaring victory felt like the meme of the man kissing the girl and spraying champagne from third place on the podium. I commend the organisers for putting on an entertaining evening of rhetorical pugilism, but Goodwin was right, in his closing remarks: debate is not enough. We cannot hide in one room congratulating ourselves for “owning the libs” while the rest of the house is irrevocably redesigned. Something more must be done to provide substantive political representation for Englishmen dismayed by the transformation of the world on their doorstep, without having been asked.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover