Here’s the deal: there is no pendulum in politics. There is no right side of history. There is – with apologies to Martin Luther King – no “arc of the moral universe”, bending inevitably towards justice. There is only human agency and its operations in ever-morphing contexts. That’s it. That’s all there is.
Which is why, when that agency does indeed turn towards collaboration and decency, it is so uplifting. For three successive weekends, hundreds of thousands of Germans have taken to the streets to protest against racist extremism, a powerful outpouring of principled defiance under the banner: “Never again is now”.
The demonstrations were initially prompted by the resourceful journalism of the independent group Correctiv, which uncovered details of a secret summit at Potsdam in November attended by members of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party as well as representatives of the Austrian Identitarian Movement. At the heart of the discussion was a repulsive plan for the mass deportations of migrants and German nationals of foreign origin described as “unassimilated citizens”.
This matters because, at around 23%, the AfD is presently second only to the centre-right CDU-CSU in the opinion polls. Its 44-year-old co-leader, Alice Weidel, who was recently interviewed by the Financial Times, is a former Goldman Sachs banker, in a civil partnership with a woman of Sri Lankan heritage; hardly fitting the stereotype of the thuggish racist.
Cultivating an ever-more mainstream image, however bogus, the party has high hopes for the European parliamentary elections in June and regional contests three months later. On Sunday evening, it was gratifying to see the AfD lose a district race in the state of Thuringia.
After the chilling spectacle of Donald Trump’s return and vice-like grip upon the 2024 Republican presidential nomination – not to mention the respective victories of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Javier Milei in Argentina – we now witness, so to speak, a popular uprising against right wing populism. As Michael Frayn observes in the postscript to his play about Willy Brandt, Democracy, the transformation of Germany from the “sick dream” of Nazism continues to inspire: “that material prosperity, that peacefulness, even that supposed dullness, represent an achievement at which I never cease to marvel or to be moved”.
What are the lessons of these demonstrations for the rest of the democratic world, as it continues to grapple with the threat of the nationalist right and strongman authoritarian leadership? On last week’s episode of our podcast The Two Matts, TNE’s own Tanit Koch sounded a note of caution. “A vast part of AfD’s popularity,” she said, “is that nagging feeling: ‘What about me? Who cares about me? Why aren’t those people in charge doing a lot more for me?’ We have to be very careful because those sentiments – ‘my government cares more for other people than for myself’ – can turn toxic at some point”.
This encapsulates the challenge now facing progressives. In this country, there will certainly have to be a new deal on border control that is both plausible and compassionate; that addresses the electorate’s concerns but does not pander to xenophobia or resort to cruel gimmicks like the Rwanda scheme.
Part of the problem is sheer incompetence and scandalous under-resourcing: at the end of November, the overall number of unresolved asylum claims stood at 91,076 (not including so-called “legacy” applications made before June 28 2022). As Rishi Sunak fixates on his immoral, eccentric and costly plan to deport refugees to Rwanda, the migration system as a whole is collapsing in a way that should shame any government.
In the US, Trump pumps hatred of migrants into the electoral bloodstream, while Joe Biden struggles to find a way of managing the southern border. In Texas, he is engaged in a stand-off with Governor Greg Abbott who is defying the Supreme Court’s order to take down the razor wire he has installed to deter migration.
For progressives, this issue is intrinsically delicate. As a lifelong Londoner, and the son of a migrant, I have always been strongly in favour of pluralist communities, porous borders and cultural diversity: this strikes me as an essential component of Britishness, and I don’t resile from that position in the slightest.
What is undoubtedly true is the following: that immigration has become a proxy issue on a grand scale; emblematic of a general fear of hectic change, of social disruption and of an ill-focused expectation of loss. This is why the Leave campaign’s “Take back control” slogan in the 2016 referendum was so dishonest but so effective. It aggravated and exploited these anxieties without offering a constructive and compassionate solution.
This is the populist way: to pretend that there are easy answers to complex problems, while nurturing nativist resentment. Nigel Farage’s defining mission has been to inflame such tensions relentlessly, while leaving others to deal with the consequences.
The progressive response has to be quite different and start with a hefty dose of candour. Population mobility is going to increase dramatically in the years ahead, not least as conflicts proliferate and as climate change takes effect: the World Bank expects there to be 260 million climate refugees by 2030, and up to 1.2 billion by 2050. More specifically: it has long been the case that Britain’s economy and public services depend upon newcomers; a feature of our history that should unite us as a nation.
It was a tragedy that the Remain campaign refused so conspicuously to make this case eight years ago. But that error cannot be undone. It is for the next generation of liberals – a government headed by Keir Starmer, one hopes – to take a bold imaginative leap and present not only a persuasive plan for practical border control but a case for immigration that drains the unwarranted fear and venom from the issue.
This will, of course, be very hard. Which brings us back to human agency and its deployment. By taking peacefully to the streets, the Germans have offered much-needed inspiration. But it is action that counts.