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Friday, 20 April 2018

Hostile Territory

After she triumphantly claimed that the decision to destroy the Windrush landing cards had been taken under the last Labour government, and not while she was Home Secretary during the coalition (a ploy echoed by Nick Timothy claiming that she was on holiday when the infamous "Go home" vans were approved), Theresa May signed off Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday by saying that antisemitism was running rife in the Labour Party. This was opportunistic hype (the Commons cameras helpfully cut to a stony-faced Ruth Smeeth and Luciana Berger on the opposition back-benches), but it was also chutzpah. The first legislation that directly and systematically addressed immigration during the modern era was the 1905 Aliens Act, which was passed under the Conservative administration of Arthur Balfour. This was implemented in response to fears over unchecked Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, which had been stimulated since the 1880s by both the pull of the United States and the push of pogroms in Tsarist Russia (as the preeminent global shipping hub, Britain was often the first stop in a longer journey for European emigrants and some, due to waning funds or waning desire, got no further).

Though the 1905 act preserved the principles of generous asylum that had been a characteristic of British policy since the French Revolution, it was unquestionably an antisemitic initiative whose passing owed much to the new popular press that arose in the final years of the Victorian era and its symbiotic relationship with the radical right, notably the xenophobic British Brothers' League. The parallels between today's right-wing press and UKIP are obvious, down to the organisation's steep decline once its major goal ("England for the English") had been achieved. The new Liberal government that took office in 1906 did not repeal the act, though it wasn't particularly energetic in enforcing it either. The problem of illegal aliens and their supposed bad habits had been exaggerated and the political dynamic was driven by a desire to "do something" that would satisfy the press. That said, the Liberal's "let sleeping dogs lie" attitude highlighted their lack of interest in making a more generous immigration policy a matter of principle, which we find echoes of in the 2010-15 coalition.


Outside of wartime, there were no further attempts to implement immigration controls until the 1948 British Nationality Act. This wasn't directly concerned with immigration as such, the chief purpose of the act being to allow white emigrants from the UK to the dominions to retain British citizenship, but it had the effect of confirming the right of "colonials" to settle in Britain. In a repeat of the decades leading up to the 1905 act, growing public concern over "coloured" immigration, which was fanned by the press and the far-right in the 1950s, led to the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962. Though this was developed in the context of the disappearance of empire and the assumption of ever closer ties with Europe, the inherent discrimination in the treatment of white versus non-white Commonwealth citizens led Hugh Gaitskell, the then leader of the Labour opposition, to describe it as "cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation". Subsequent acts in 1968 and 1971, under Labour and Conservative governments respectively, further tightened restrictions on immigration in a way that was clearly discriminatory, notably against East African Asians.

I'm not going to detail immigration policy from the 1970s onwards because you've probably got the picture by now. Despite the usual "firm but fair" guff and periodic claims that technology will make it seamless, the pattern is one of immigration policy evolving in response to press-led panics about the "problems" posed by particular groups, from criminality through pressure on public services to Sharia law. The political response to these periodic panics has tended to oscillate between endorsement ("swamping") and cant ("legitimate concerns"). The latter reflects not so much cowardice as a pragmatic recognition that there are few votes in a principled pro-immigration stance and that a hostile environment is usually more bark than bite. What is notable about the Tory-led administrations from 2010 onwards is the extent to which immigration officials have been encouraged to bite hard. This probably owes more to media pressure and the related issue of the EU than it does to the personal prejudices of either Theresa May or Amber Rudd, though their diligence should not go unremarked.

Despite the groundwork laid in the 90s over "bogus" asylum-seekers and the Islamophobia of the 00s, the single biggest contributor to the contemporary hostile environment for immigration was the EU referendum result, and (despite the media manipulation and David Cameron's cowardice) it is the British public who have to take responsibility for that. Hostility, sometimes rebranded as "toughness", has been a defining feature of government since the Thatcher years, highlighting the degree to which commitment and belief have prospered at the expense of scepticism and tolerance in the political milieu. This applies as much to New Labour as the Tories, with the penchant for technocratic solutions and evidence-based policy failing to obscure class and race prejudice. The dissenting left is not immune to the same hegemonic pressure - the mandatory "passion" of neoliberal self-actualisation - but it is noticeable how supposed "ideologues" such as Corbyn and McDonnell are routinely hauled over the coals by the media for expressing doubt or suggesting that certain topics would repay investigation and research rather than a rush to judgement.

This hostility obviously spreads much further than just immigration, including the beasting of the disabled, the systematic dissuasion of welfare claimants, and the relentless chivvying of the unemployed. The two-child cap on benefits has extended this hostility to the very act of social reproduction, which should remind us that the British state in the democratic epoch has only once deviated from the sociopathic attitude of the Edwardian era. The 1945-79 period increasingly looks anomalous not just in its economics but in its social generosity (its "socialism", if you will). The present issue isn't the prejudices of a particular politician but a normative assumption that the chief role of government is the disciplining of society in the service of an abstract ideal of market exchange, rather than the promotion of freedoms (from want, disease, ignorance etc) that will aid individual flourishing. While Tory ministers try and avoid blame for their callous actions, the Liberal Democrat worthies of the coalition years artlessly admit the truth: that looking after the vulnerable is on a par with taking a stand against plastic bags.


That the Windrush scandal should have broken the surface in a week marked by both the Commonwealth summit and the BBC's airing of a three-part documentary on Stephen Lawrence's murder is not coincidental. The adoption of the Lawrence family's cause by The Daily Mail obviously owed something to the lucky coincidence of Neville Lawrence doing plastering work at Paul Dacre's home, but it also owed much to the evident "respectability" of Doreen and Neville Lawrence. The wider sympathy for the "Windrush Generation", with the Mail to the fore, has much to do with their age and a nostalgia for the Commonwealth as reimagined through the lens of The Crown (were a victim of the Border Agency to suggest that the UK should become a republic, they would immediately lose all sympathy). But for this very reason, the liberal attempt to equate the travails of the Windrush OAPs with EU citizens post-Brexit is likely to fail. For Middle England, there is no equivalence between a lifelong tax-paying West Indian in Peckham and a 40-year old Dutch academic in Oxford, let alone a 20-year old Polish labourer in Spalding.

Regrettable though it may be, David Goodhart echoes popular opinion in his insistence that the only effective policy towards illegal immigration is one that is explicitly hostile. This is because "illegals" have been successfully othered by the media and opportunistic politicians over the years, to the point where attitudes such as "deport first, appeal later" have been normalised as common sense. The error that people make is in assuming that an environment of hostility will only apply to illegal immigrants, which misunderstands that illegality is a matter of degree (and fine judgement, in many cases) and that the environment, like a fishing net, must be cast across the whole of society if it is to be effective (Goodhart now advocates ID cards for all). What politicians like Theresa May and apologists like Goodhart fail to appreciate is that a hostile environment will thereby corrode society as a whole. With its rejection of Europe and its condescending attitude towards the Commonwealth - mixing the delusional pretensions of an imperial revival with grudging consideration for its members' concerns - the UK is fast-developing a global reputation as a hostile territory for reasons that go far beyond immigration.

13 comments:

  1. David, is the Labour party institutionally antisemitic?

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  2. What about Livingstone implicating zionists in the Holocaust? One man's incompetence is another's malice. Or Jackie Walker talking about a zionist media conspiracy? Surely the (initial) suspension rather than expulsion of Livingstone, and the suspension followed by nothing of Walker, shows Labour permit anti-semitism?

    I ask because I do not want to campaign for an antisemitic party, and you're an authoritative (possibly neutral?) person to ask.

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    1. Just out of curiosity, which CLP are you a member of?

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    2. Derby North. Chris Williamson's seat.

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    3. I imagine they may survive your crisis of conscience.

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  3. Ben Philliskirk22 April 2018 at 19:55

    "The error that people make is in assuming that an environment of hostility will only apply to illegal immigrants, which misunderstands that illegality is a matter of degree (and fine judgement, in many cases) and that the environment, like a fishing net, must be cast across the whole of society if it is to be effective (Goodhart now advocates ID cards for all)."

    Yes, you've hit the nail right on the head there. The idea that you shouldn't worry if you have 'nothing to hide' is heavily ingrained, and I remember pointing out to my Dad that a 'hostile environment' pollutes society in an argument about CCTV cameras. The state always has the potential to be highly authoritarian, especially when politicians abdicate their moral judgement to the gutter press and their administrative oversight to the bureaucracy.

    The irony is that, for all the rowdiness, xenophobia and religious prejudices of the 18th and 19th centuries, British popular culture of those eras was very concerned to defend 'British liberties' against the encroachments of the state.

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    1. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the "liberties" celebrated in the 18th & 19th centuries were essentially the privileges of a minority (e.g. the focus on private property) rather than the interests of the majority.

      The reality is that the state has always encroached, to the maximum degree allowed by contemporary technology, into the lives of the majority. The restraint of the state has always been a privilege.

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    2. Ben Philliskirk23 April 2018 at 08:39

      Maybe I muddied my argument by including the 19th century, but it's definitely the case that 18th century British capitalism was very state orientated, depending on patronage from the state and protection of private property from the encroachment of the commons. As such, there was a definite streak of popular libertarianism in facets such as poaching, smuggling, and 'collective bargaining by riot'. I don't think many ordinary people were relaxed about state interference in life because they had 'nothing to hide'.

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  4. I am sure IDS and Osbourne must have been amused by the liberals selling out the poor for a plastic bag levy. That lost them how many seats I wonder? Bunch of idiots. It no doubt helped Brexit as well by discrediting the most pro EU party in the eyes of millions.

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  5. Why do Islamophobic Brexiters claim Sharia law to be a threat that Brexit can protect us from, when (amongst other things no doubt) the EU's prohibition of capital punishment – Title I Article 2 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights – means there is zero prospect of hudud punishments (which let's face it is what most non-Muslims actually mean when they speak of "Sharia law" in a derogatory sense) being implemented in an EU member state?

    Are they liars, deluded, or people who have a quasi-Hitlerian world view where only race (or perhaps religion) really matters, and institutions and the rule of law count for nothing?

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    1. I imagine Sharia is simply a proxy for Muslim, so it's a way of being overtly bigoted without running foul of the law. Your average Islamophobe knows no more about Sharia than they do about the Charter of Fundamental Rights

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    2. Your average Islamophobe would certainly justify their position by saying that "Muslims are barbarians who stone to death unfaithful women, murder gays and cut off the hands of thieves" even though they won't know the word "hudud" for these punishments.

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