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Hillary Clinton’s centrist remedy to stop right-wing populists apes their own anti-migration rhetoric

Still the centre? Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.

These are the words of former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in a series of recent interviews conducted by the Guardian newspaper with what it termed “heavyweight centrist” politicians. Clinton was setting out her prescription for how to “stop right-wing populists”.

Her advice, according to the Guardian, focused solely on migration control. Yet this is rather contradictory, since she appears to be calling for precisely the same policy on this issue as the right-wing populists she is trying to stop.

The former UK Independence Party MEP, Nigel Farage, for example, used Nazi-echoing imagery in his Leave.EU campaign ahead of the UK’s 2016 EU referendum. Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister, was placed under investigation in August for illegal detention and kidnapping after refusing to let a Mediterranean rescue boat carrying over 100 people dock.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has erected a four metre-high razor-wire fence along Hungarian borders to keep out what he terms “Muslim invaders”.

Read more: Open to those who can pay: the hypocrisy of how Hungary treats asylum seekers

In the UK, the “centre” has chased the right on immigration politics for many years, from the UK Labour Party’s “controls on immigration” campaign souvenir mug, to the Conservative Party’s effort to woo voters from UKIP by introducing ever-hardening policies on immigration. In chasing policies they believe to be popular, rather than principled, these mainstream parties that claim the political “centre ground” themselves fit the definition of “populist”.

Tired of facts

In research I conducted with colleagues into the effects of government anti-immigration messaging, we were told by somebody who works in Westminster policy circles that:

The public are not going to believe any immigration statistics … With immigration you have every reason to disbelieve data, because the government has told you it’s crap at collecting it.

The received wisdom among most civil servants, politicians and think tanks was you could never win the electorate round to liking migration with facts. The way to win votes, therefore, was to continue to emphasise how tough a particular politician would be in controlling migration.

This was to be displayed in prominent policies – from more official uniforms for border guards at ports of entry, to more formal checks in everyday life, to publicity campaigns about deportation and removals. The effectiveness of this in terms of either managing migration, or assuaging public fear of migration, was not the point. The focus was on political power.

Read more: What is populism – and why is it so hard to define?

The right to refuge

In this light, Clinton’s comment is just more of the same. But her advice to the centrist politicians of Europe, that they should no longer “continue to provide refuge”, was startling. This is different to managing migration. What Clinton is suggesting here is the end of protection under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. This international law promises that a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion will not be sent back to a country which poses serious threats to their life or freedom.

People rescued in the Mediterranean arrive at the Italian port of Catania in July 2018. Orietta Scardino/EPA

The Refugee Convention is ratified by 145 states. And though some of those signatories do flout it on occasion, it is a profound statement to suggest these protections should be ended. The convention was written to protect refugees in the aftermath of World War II, a war in which, we are told, fascism was defeated. So it’s highly significant that a former US secretary of state should suggest that such an international agreement should be ended as a way of defeating present-day fascism.

History lessons forgotten

The problem with Clinton’s message is not only one of opportunist politics, a politics in which the appeal of gaining power for the centre is paramount, even at the expense of the most marginalised. It is bigger than that – it is an erasure of historical memory.

This is at a moment when the struggle over history and its meaning is alive in many other ways too. Student mobilisations such as the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign which began at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to the UK, are a case in point. Students calling for statues of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes to be removed from a place of reverence were accused of wishing to “erase history”.

But what they were actually calling for was a proper recognition of Rhodes’s history, which was one of systematic, violent exploitation of the people of South Africa on a massive scale. Like many other colonial histories, Rhodes’s brutal legacy is in plain sight, and yet its roots have been forgotten by many. There are many such histories to be reckoned with.

Clinton’s suggestion that Europe end the provision of refuge in order to counter far-right populism asks for a similar erasure of history. Her call both forgets the context in which the UN Convention was created, and does the opposite of what it promises. Rather than heading off far-right, anti-migrant rhetoric, it gives this rhetoric legitimacy.

To avoid a yet more brutal future, perhaps the question which Clinton was asked – how to stop right-wing populism – has a more complex answer. Perhaps there is a need to understand, remember, and learn from history, rather than to rush head-first into more of the same.

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