Over 20 years, the debate about freedom of movement has become skewed by a hostile narrative. By Rachel Shabi
Few chance encounters have had a greater political impact than Gordon Brown’s fateful meeting with Gillian Duffy on an April morning in Rochdale in 2010. When the then prime minister was caught on a hot mic calling the Labour-voting pensioner a “bigoted woman” – after she cornered him with complaints about immigrants “flocking” into Britain – it did not just sink his floundering campaign. It set the tone for the way immigration would become the most toxic issue in British politics for the decade to come.
When New Labour came to power in 1997, just 3% of the public cited immigration as a key issue. By the time of the EU referendum in 2016, that figure was 48%. During those intervening years, the issue came to dominate and distort British politics – exactly according to the script established by Bigotgate. Brown’s gaffe both consolidated and gave credence to a political coding that would shape everything that came after: the “hostile environment”, the Windrush scandal, the EU referendum and the revival of Britain’s far right – deploying a narrative in which sneering, out-of-touch, big-city politicians who favour foreigners and open borders are hopelessly oblivious to the struggles and the so-called “legitimate concerns” of ordinary working people (who, in this scenario, are always white).