‘They are not laughing now’. So the UKIP leader Nigel Farage gloated in the European Parliament in July 2016. It was not the first time these exact words have been uttered, in the same spirit of vengeful vindication in a European parliament.
In January 1942, Adolf Hitler went to the Reichstag and recalled his words in the same forum in January 1939: ‘If the international Jewish conspiracy succeeds in plunging the world into another war, it will mean the liquidation of the Jews of Europe’. Three years later, as his armies stood outside Moscow, Hitler said ‘I have made many prophecies and often I have been laughed at. They are not laughing now’. This was Hitler’s real declaration of the Holocaust; and he repeated these statements again and again, right up to the stench and squalor of his suicide in the Berlin Bunker in April 1945. The worst obscenity of Hitler is that he died in the belief that he had actually achieved at least one half of his essential war aims – the ‘purification’ of the German people by the extermination of the Jews of Europe.
I do not say that Farage is a Nazi. I do say that once a great nation like Britain makes fear and hatred of immigrants the basis for one of the most sweeping decisions in its history, as it did on 23 July, and makes it amidst the wreckage of its finest legacy, the parliamentary system, it has set itself on a slippery slope no one dare predict the end.
The spirit of things matter, and the spirit of Farage’s speech with its thinly-veiled bitterness, hatred and contempt, chills the soul.
Migration in and out of Britain is at the very heart of its history. Farage himself no doubt is proud of descent from Huguenot refugees from the religious persecution of Louis XIV. Boris Johnson made a celebration of the British National Health Service the centerpiece of the Olympic Games opening ceremony in 2012; the NHS could not exist without the work of the 15,000 Caribbean, Pakistani and Indian doctors and nurses who form its core.
In the 18th Century, Britain solved its convict problem by founding the penal settlement of Botany Bay. In the 19th Century, Britain avoided the Malthusian doom of overpopulation by migration to the United States, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. They took with them their language and institutions – still the source of Britain’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’. When Scotland leaves the Union, as it will as soon as it has another chance, and when the Irish face the same ‘protection of British jobs’ proposed by the Brexits for the rest of Europe, England, no longer Great Britain, will have the influence of any of the other also-ran nations in decline, as the inward-looking, insular country it will now become.
Opportunities for leadership in Europe, reconciliation with Russia and balance to the United States have been thrown away.
Because the immediate target of UKIP’s hate are Eastern Europeans, they like to claim they are not racist, strictly speaking.
But immigrant nations, Australia above all, know that once the poison of race discrimination starts, it can spread to any vulnerable groups.
This is what Australia and Britain must understand: any vulnerable group can be attacked in certain political circumstances, and held guilty for events 15,000 miles away, in countries with which they have nothing to do except descent or religious affiliation. No minority is safe in a climate of fear and hatred.
In Australia in the 19th Century, far and away the most acceptable migrants, actively sought by the colonial governments, particularly Queensland, were the Germans. They were welcome as reliable, hard-working, law-abiding and mainly Protestant. They were kin, just like the Royal family. My grandfather, aged 22 and my grandmother’s father came to Queensland from Germany at the end of 1870 – from Prussia actually because they left Hamburg a month before the Franco-Prussian war and arrived in Moreton Bay a month before Bismark proclaimed the German Empire in the Palace of Versailles in January 1871. They lost all their contacts with Germany and proceeded apace with the process of Anglicization (except they kept the German name) culminating with the birth of my father in 1894, baptized an Anglican instead of Lutheran, and named after the Governor of Queensland that year, Sir Henry Norman. They built a very successful bakery business in Boundary Street, Spring Hill, Brisbane over the next 48 years.
By 1914, their main income came from their contract to supply the bread to the Brisbane General Hospital. By 1915, nobody would buy their bread because they were Germans. The Brisbane Hospital contract was cancelled because they were enemy aliens. In 1916, they were disfranchised under the Enemy Alien Act. My grandfather escaped internment because of his age. They had three sons at the front. My father served on Gallipoli from May to December 1915 and then in Palestine. One of his brothers, my uncle, was killed on the second day of the battle of Messina in June 1917. My grandfather died of a broken heart.
I knew nothing of all this, except of course my father’s war service as an original Anzac and a very active member of the RSL (he was the founder of the Cooparoo RSL Club). So there is no question of my growing up with a chip on my shoulder. I only learnt of it from my eldest nephew, the family historian, in my seventies.
The only point I make is that in Australia, absolutely dependent on migration, for all its tolerance, any group can be made vulnerable if events go wrong on the other side of the world, and all our great British and Australian traditions can be set aside at the stroke of a politician’s pen. Who will be laughing then?