On Thursday night I spoke at the Oxford Union on the motion ‘This House believes post-war immigration into Britain has been too high.’
In many ways this is an easy debate to explain and win, notwithstanding the fact that Lord Singh, Nadhim Zahawi MP and Monica Ali were lined up in opposition. The Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said immigration has been too high and that he wants to bring it down. The Labour Leader Ed Miliband has said the same. As have all major, mainstream British politicians.
And no wonder. A British Social Attitudes survey from last year showed 77 per cent of the British public want immigration to come down. Almost 60 per cent want it to come down by ‘a lot’. Even those Labour ministers who presided over what was undeniably the most appalling relaxing – or rather disintegrating – of our borders from 1997 onwards have admitted they got it wrong. ‘A spectacular mistake’ was how Jack Straw described it last year.
So, as I say, a fairly easy motion to win. With only two problems.
First of course is that there are still some people – including, it seems, many Oxford students – who hear ‘too much immigration’ and think ‘Eek, this is about my friend/ my great-great-grandmother etc. And then on Thursday there was also the fact that on my side, speaking before me, there was a student and Godfrey Bloom.
I must say that I’ve never had any particular views on the expelled UKIP MEP. I think plain-speaking politicians are too few on the ground, and recognise that Mr Bloom has a constituency. I also know very well how the press can misrepresent someone by cherry-picking and then harping on about a few select remarks made over the course of a life (Prince Phillip being a case in point), thus making the person out to be more of a fool than they are. So I went in relatively open-minded about my own side, albeit aware of potential problems and wondering why the organisers hadn’t arranged their line-up rather better.
What Mr Bloom managed, however, was beyond my worst fears. Nevermind his referring to Monica Ali as ‘sweetheart’. Monica gave a very disappointingly and personally attacking speech herself (which was not just in favour of mass immigration but rather surprisingly glossed over all the considerable problems about it raised in, among other places, her own novel Brick Lane).
No, what was worst, and I gather has already created some media interest (which is why I set out the facts here), is Mr Bloom’s response to one floor-speech from a student.
The student in question was dressed in white tie and tails, had shoulder length black hair and a rather clear disability. I have no idea what it is. He appeared to be slightly lame in one leg. At any rate, he took himself to the box and gave a very impassioned speech against my side of the argument, ending in an unnecessary attack on Mr Bloom.
Mr Bloom’s response to which was to get up and demand of the student ‘Are you Richard III?’
Justly, the student responded by saying that when people go for physical attacks it’s generally because they’ve lost the argument.
But it was an awful moment. I thought the student’s speech misguided and wrong. But why anybody, let alone an elected politician, would taunt him for his disability is beyond me. It was a gruesome moment – ghastly, disgraceful and deeply telling of Mr Bloom. I was glad to have the opportunity to speak with the student afterwards.
Anyhow – despite my best efforts the side arguing that there has been too much immigration in Britain lost magnificently. And I cannot think it is because Oxford students are so completely out of touch with the opinions of the vast majority of the public and all major politicians. It is, I think, because serious, deep-rooted and sincere concerns end by getting treated with levity because they are believed to be concerns raised only by people like Mr Bloom.
I wish it weren’t the case. The problems this country is going to face if immigration does not come down are hard to overstate. But still you get people unwilling to explain why. For years it was because people feared being called ‘racist’. Now, thanks to people like Christopher Caldwell, Trevor Phillips and Paul Collier among other sober analysts, that problem has partly been diffused. But it isn’t then helped when even a portion of the argument is expounded by a character like Godfrey Bloom.
There is always room in our national comedy for ‘characters’. The problem is when they then use their status to wreck and otherwise make a laughing-stock of subjects which are far from comical. Especially when they turn out – as Mr Bloom did on Thursday – to be not just a bore, but a boor.