Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Sans Papiers

One of the more unusual features of the Windrush scandal has been the eruption of social reality into political debate. This is apparent not just in the way that the square peg of personal circumstance fails to fit the round hole of official approval, but in the evidence that many people will go to some lengths to minimise their contact with state agencies, which raises questions about the state's knowledge of the population and thus the empirical basis for much social policy. It's no secret that 1 in 6 people in the UK don't have a passport of any sort (the question is in the census, after all), yet it has apparently come as a surprise to government ministers that many Britons don't regularly take walking holidays in Switzerland or rent a villa with a pool in the Algarve. It has certainly befuddled them to realise that many natives have a thinner official record than many immigrants, making them more underground that even actual "illegals" who have overstayed their visas. Not since the days when Tory grandees unwisely allowed themselves to be filmed on grouse moors has the gulf in lived experience appeared so wide.

Usually, social reality is kept at arms-length in political discourse in two ways. The first is the convention of representative democracy that allows politicians to ventriloquise the concerns of "ordinary people" and thereby abstract society to the point where diversity is obscured. The problem with this approach is that the vocabulary of the people (what we mean by "immigrant") and the grammar of the politicians (controls, targets, delivery) are both heavily influenced by the media. The structural interests of the latter encourage homogeneity, whether in the form of the nation or the public sphere. The second way that reality is distanced is by irrelevant historicisation, for example the argument over precisely when the decision to destroy the Windrush landing cards was taken. When David Lammy mentions his own parents' journey to the UK, or notes that West Indians were first forcibly removed to the Caribbean by the British slave trade, he is providing context for the sense of hurt but he is distracting from the issue at hand, namely what happened in recent years to lead the majority of politicians to approve a hostile environment that not only targeted the innocent but corroded social trust in schools and hospitals? (the role of the media, again, should be noted).

One reason why historicisation is problematic is that it assumes experience is serial and chronological, when in fact it is anything but. We are familiar with the idea that historical periods do not occur consistently everywhere due to the vagaries of geography - for example, that the moral changes associated with the urban 1960s didn't arrive in the suburbs until the 1970s (the current adaptation of China MiƩville's The City and the City on BBC2 provides an absurdist representation of the uneven distribution of the future as well as an unintended metaphor for Brexit). But we remain wedded to the idea that eras have clean breaks and distinct pivots, like the fall of the Bastille or the shot in Sarajevo that rang out around the world. The Windrush scandal itself is constrained by this paradigm, both in its focus on that one ship (with Lord Kitchener doing his a capella calypso for the cameras one more time) and the emblematic year 1948 that also saw the foundation of the NHS. The scandal's scope may now expand to Asians and Africans, whose cases have been under-reported to date, though the media seem more interested in cases from the white Commonwealth and Europe.

What is notable about the Windrush saga is not that a nationality status from the 1950s should have survived undisturbed until the early 21st century but that we are witnessing the collision of data eras. The physical Windrush landing cards turned out to be crucial because they had never been transposed to digital media. Once they were binned, they were lost to history (though I won't be at all surprised if they actually turn up one day). Had they been digitised, the affected individuals could at least have proved when they arrived in the UK, though this wouldn't have been enough to satisfy the Home Office's demand for proof of continuous residence. In practice, the authorities have asked for a year-on-year history of financial transactions, including payslips, bank statements and housing records (e.g. mortgage payments or rentbooks). Outside of years in education, verifiable transactions with the state, such as National Insurance and pension contributions, aren't considered adequate evidence, which shows that this is about more than bureaucratic conformance. What you are being asked to prove is that you were fully integrated into the market, not society.

Some people have noted that the "hostile environment" depends on an informational asymmetry between the individual and the state. Few of us retain more than a minimum of our historical records: a birth certificate, maybe an expired passport, possibly an NHS card. If you want to know your National Insurance number, you probably check a recent payslip. If challenged to prove permanent residence in the UK since birth, most natives would struggle. In contrast, the state holds a lot of data on us and while its ability to connect this across multiple agencies and databases is notoriously poor it has the potential to construct an extensive (if not necessarily always accurate) picture of our lives. In asking for a history of market transactions, the Home Office is adopting a standard of proof that is more appropriate to contemporary data norms: you may not have kept all your old paper bank statements but you can now access all your digital copies online. The issue is that this "life evidence" is increasingly under the control of corporations rather than bureaucracies. If we had invented smartphones with geolocation in the 1940s, proving permanent residence in the UK might have been easier for the Windrush generation.

Predictably, the authoritarian centre (David Goodhart, Tom Harris et al) has been using the Windrush case to advance the idea of national identity cards once more. An ID system, so the thinking goes, would have allowed the Windrush generation to be properly naturalised and illegal immigrants to be rounded up and deported with the minimum of fuss. The suggestion that ID cards would have been a clean and efficient system that would have avoided the creation of the current cack-handed "hostile environment" is disingenuous. It would actually have created an underclass of native-born sans papiers, with an obvious class and race bias, that it would have been difficult to separate from the actual "illegals" (of course, a failure to register for an ID card would itself become illegal). The irrelevance of the suggestion arises not from its impracticality but its cleaving to an old-fashioned approach - "Papers, please!" - at a time when technology is delivering a multi-faceted profile based on market participation and distinguished by private sector management. For all the talk about Home Office incompetence and cruelty, what the Windrush scandal shows is that we are moving rapidly away from the era of paper-driven bureaucracies to one of data-driven markets.

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