Climate Change Means the Right Have to Get Smarter on Immigration | Joe Molander
Climate change occupies a weird space in our brains. Even after becoming a hot-button issue (two thirds of Britons think it’s as important as coronavirus), we still act like it doesn’t affect anything else. However, as we’re starting to see, nothing stress tests our biases like a crisis. The International Organization for Migration predicts that by 2050, there could be up to 1.5 billion ‘climate migrants’. Rising sea levels, natural disasters and a growth in the numbers of areas that are uninhabitable will force more and more people to move. For lots of them, their best bet will be Britain. This will pose a challenge to all worldviews, but may be a particular stumbling block for conservatism.
In the near future, immigration will become a salient issue, and not for the first time. We saw it discussed frequently in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, and during the 2014-19 migrant crisis. Where liberals and leftists were supportive of migrants and refugees, the right proved more cautious. At times, this erring has given way to intolerance.
Those on the centre right are wearily well-aware that you can appeal to the right and far right by being tough on immigration. In 2015, David Cameron made headlines after he described a “swarm” of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean. When Theresa May was Home Secretary, the Home Office drove vans around towns with high immigrant populations that encouraged people here illegally to “go home”. Even Nigel Farage described that campaign’s tone as “nasty”, and recognised the move as an attempt to stop Conservative Party voters flocking to UKIP.
By stirring anti-immigrant sentiment, the Conservative Party was just about able to see off the challenge from further right parties. It also laid the groundwork for a contentious and often xenophobic referendum campaign. Most notable was Nigel Farage standing in front of a picture of non-white migrants with “BREAKING POINT” written in front of it. The Archbishop of Canterbury accused him of “inexcusable pandering to people’s worries and prejudices” and “giving legitimisation to racism”. Even moderate components of the leave political machine got their hands dirty. Vote Leave were accused of doctoring footage to whip up anti-Turkish sentiment.
That was the right’s response to immigration when it was less than a million people a year. In 2016, it represented less than a single percent of Britain’s population. Net migration was nearly half that. The rise of climate migrants will soon stop that being the case. As immigration rises, the right should be careful not to repeat mistakes from the past, for two reasons.
The first is one of principle. Immigration is a natural process that has been observed throughout history, and attempts from the right to put artificial caps on it have helped legitimise anti-immigrant jingoism. If that hostility rises in direct proportion to the number of immigrants, conservatism risks becoming consumed by intolerance. That can translate into policy that stops us helping those in the international community who need it most. At home, it has the potential to stoke ethnic tension that poses a serious threat to social cohesion. Much is made of immigrants’ need to integrate into the local community: there’s little incentive to try when it’s clear that community doesn’t want you.
Second, there are more practical concerns. Denouncing immigration works fine when it’s at a level that can be controlled. When it increases to the point where immigration targets become completely unrealistic, anti-immigrant sentiment will stop working. Climate change will ensure that no matter how much rhetoric gets thrown at the world, the world will keep throwing back immigrants. If the Conservative Party starts making promises on immigration it can’t keep, it risks losing support.
We see, then, that the right has to evolve. Conservatives often boast of being more pragmatic than the left, which often rings true. The next few years provide an opportunity to show the other side how to do a rebrand. Conservatives have the chance to see when policies like immigration targets become unviable, and ditch them as soon as they do. In their place, new policies that both accept the changing reality of immigration and champion conservative values are still possible. The idea that anyone can be successful with enough hard work, regardless of background, is popular amongst the right. Such thinking is surely to be welcomed by those willing to cross borders and seas in pursuit of a better life.
A green Conservative Party is far from a pipe dream. A recent poll from The National Centre for Social Research suggests that only 5% of Conservative voters are “not at all worried” about climate change. Many look back with renewed fondness on the days of David Cameron, who quietly and amicably made environmentalism a centre right concern. More recently, Michael Gove received praise for his work as environment secretary. Gove’s replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy rewards farmers who take steps towards environmental responsibility. At the time, he said it would ensure a “green Brexit”.
If the top brass of the party prove reluctant to change with the times, the grassroots can do it for them. Conservatism belongs to its grassroots more than the left does to its: there are far more Blairites and Corbynistas than May-ists, Cameron-ians or Johnson-ites. If the upper echelons of the Conservative Party start to dig their heels in, Tories will probably feel less icky about replacing them.
We see, then, that the right are capable of dealing with the environment, often effectively. The issue will only grow in potency and immediacy, though, and there will come a day where other conservative talking points will have to give. That will be the true test for the right.