Jim Sillars: Now can we talk about immigration?

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Democracy, Winston Churchill said, is “the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried”.

Its faults and its “better than the rest” characteristic were both proved correct last week. For some time it had been evident something is seriously wrong with the democratic process, especially in England, but not as Scotland discovered, it alone. We are now ruled by an elite: people who entered universities with the intention of being politicians, who picked jobs that would propel them up the greasy pole – like researching for an MP or MSP, or being a special adviser. Their experience of life as lived by the rest of us – non-existent.

Skilled in spin, they pore over opinion polls like the ancient seers did over the entrails of a dead chicken, employ techniques for not answering questions, and produce a political-speak that renders language devoid of meaning.

Among their favourite words are “racist” and “bigot” aimed at silencing anyone who challenges their grip on political debate, which is cast in a world of political correctness. This elite is found not only in political parties; their peers populate the media, and so they get a platform from which to lecture and press the rest of us into silence when matters are raised they don’t like and don’t want aired.

This episode in politics has lasted around 20 years. During that time political parties have made sure they don’t collide with voters and their opinions. We get photo opportunities, posters, TV political broadcasts, and rallies from which, because they are ticket only for supporters, exclude the voters who might interrupt with real questions. The more expensive elections have become, the greater the disconnect of the people, reflected in the equation “more money spent – the bigger the voter turn off”.

In England, which has densities of population beyond anything we have experienced, economic and social problems have been multiplying. In many areas the pressures of immigration have been severe on housing and education. The greatest pressures have been in poorer districts where social stress is a factor, not in the Nottinghills or Hampsteads where the elite leaderships tends to stay.

It is an unfortunate universal phenomenon that if immigration is of a sufficient volume, the incomers are seen as a threat to the way of life by locals. Scottish history shows we are no exception. The Church of Scotland in the 1920s and 30s was vicious towards Irish immigrants. In 1923, it reported on The Menace of the Irish Race. Edinburgh had six Protestant councillors after winning 31 per cent of the vote in 1936. Morningside in 1935 saw one of the largest ever demonstrations against Irish Catholics. The Tory vote in the West drew heavily on Orange support. Even now, in some parts of our country, we live with those continuing prejudices.

The flow of immigrants into England caused anxiety and in many places real problems where housing is in short supply and schools were required to meet unplanned demand. But any raising of immigration as an issue was squashed by the political elite’s cries of “racism”.

The silence imposed did not mean the problems had gone away, just that they were never honestly discussed or addressed.

But in a democracy, and this is its outstanding virtue, it is not possible to repress and permanently stifle debate on something that is an issue that matters to people because it affects their day-to-day lives. An open door to immigration, a feature of EU membership, which by definition is uncontrolled, is bound to create problems for local communities. Ukip simply tapped into an issue waiting to break free of the “racist” straitjacket in which the elite sought to bind it.

That Ukip should be the instrument that democracy used to break a stifling mould may be uncomfortable for many of us. If so, for those on the Left, that is due to our failure, because the Left, too, has been too quick to shout “racist” when people’s anxiety has been nothing of the sort.

Now, perhaps, we can have an open and frank discussion on immigration, not to end it but to assess honestly what its impact is on communities, and how to better control numbers so that, like Canada and Australia, we get and welcome the people we want who will put down roots and become part of the community.

Immigrants can enrich the culture of the host country, as has been the case in Scotland, and can add greatly to the economic and intellectual life of any nation. This should not surprise Scots, who have been emigrating for centuries, making significant contributions to the countries they join.

The EU? There too an elite has ruled, to the ruin of southern Europe’s people. I doubt if even now they will listen.