The rhetoric on migrants shows how politicians and the media have created, and embedded, racism in British politics.
Recent controversy over the Home Office ’Go Home’ campaign on ‘illegal’ immigrants highlights the way in which politicians try to outdo each other to win over the ‘racist’ electorate in Britain – an electorate they and the media are creating. Revelations in some recent studies of the origins of the current racist political culture suggest that the media and politicians themselves have for many years actively collaborated in creating scapegoats of ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘failed asylum seekers’. But a new anti-racist movement may be building up as a result.
There seems to be a consensus, at least amongst ethnic minority journalists and politicians that the Conservatives have played their ‘race card’ early for the 2015 election in the Home Office campaign on ‘illegal’ migrants with the divisive slogan ’Go Home or face arrest’. (The slogan ‘Go Home’ featured prominently in the racist and fascist National Front graffiti of the 1970s.)
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent voiced the fears of ‘settled’ immigrants and British ‘people of colour’: ‘The messages subliminally warned all people of colour not to get too comfortable, to assume we were safe. We who came to stay jumped through hoops of fire to get acceptance. But now we know it can be withdrawn … The Tories always use the race card. They don’t even pretend inclusion any more.’
Krishnan Guru-Murthy presenting Channel 4 News on 30 July: ‘It is the use of that phrase “Go Home”. Anyone, any immigrant or non-white person who grew up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s heard that phrase as a term of racist abuse – and the government has put it on a poster.’
Muhammed Butt, leader of Brent Council, said he believed that there was no coincidence between the ’go home or face arrest‘ van and the random checks in Kensal Green. ‘I am sure it is probably connected and it leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth’, he said. ‘These so-called spot checks are not only intimidating but they are also racist and divisive.’
For many years now, anti racist campaigners have been disarmed and cowed by arguments across the political spectrum that racism no longer features in mainstream politics. As Zoe Williams has pointed out ‘some of our debating muscles have atrophied’ and at a time when ‘bigots roam more freely and noisily than they have for three decades’. Political parties at election times have systematically poisoned debates around asylum, immigration, terrorism and law and order with euphemisms and trigger phrases which allegedly appeal to the perceived racist views of key sections of the electorate.
Lynton Crosby, now employed by the Conservatives again, is widely admired by his peers in the world of special advisers, pollsters, public relations, and the political elite of all parties. He is widely credited with the election of John Howard as Australia’s prime minister in 1998 and 2001 and with the re-election of Boris Johnson as mayor of London in 2012 and is admired because he learnt how to effectively mobilise racism in the electorate for political ends. Thus, even when a campaign is lost, the candidate is blamed, not the racist message. Listen to John McTernan, political secretary to Tony Blair and head of communications for Julia Gillard Australia’s Labour prime minister from 2011-2013, speaking of Michael Howard’s disastrous 2005 campaign for the Tories, (when, incidentally, David Cameron wrote Howard’s speeches), ‘Remember the 2005 general election? The best thing about it was Crosby’s language, the dozen words that crisply defined the Tories, the subversive, persuasive – and correct – slogan: “It’s not racist to worry about immigration.” Wrong time, wrong candidate, sure, but spot on because Crosby … does some of the best polling in the world.’
Of course the argument is that the electorate is racist, not the politicians, or the political and media discourses they create. Mainstream parties see their electorate being attracted to the ‘extremist’ and ‘populist’ far Right which successfully (according to this theory), mobilise the fears and insecurity of ‘decent working people’ for political and electoral gain. The parties then pitch their ‘narratives’ and sound bite language – and policies – within a political discourse to ‘triangulate’ beyond the populist Right to capture their wholly constructed and invented racist electorates.
The electorate is also seen as ‘entitled’ to be racist, politicians are simply giving them a voice, and the myth of the lack of debate on immigration and asylum is wheeled out. When Gordon Brown in 2010 called a Labour Party worker a ‘bigot’ for her prejudiced views on Polish immigrants he broke the new golden rule of electoral politics that xenophobia, prejudice and racism should be harnessed, not confronted, for the political cause.
Philomena Essed has recently analysed this notion of ‘entitlement racism’ where actions by politicians and the media are clearly insulting or shaming of minorities but are justified by entitlements to ‘free speech’, or the need for public debate. Essed argues that these actions of bullying and shaming are racist – they are simply not covered by formal state legal definitions of racism, but are clearly exercises in power by white majorities against excluded minorities mainly composed of people of colour.
In reality, as Malcolm Dean demonstrates in his recent (2013) analysis of Democracy under attack: how the media distort policy and politics, it is the media that has historically created racist discourses in their relationships with politicians. Dean argues that the Conservatives’ 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act demonstrated ‘the depths to which Michael Howard sank in playing the race card’. He points to the Conservatives in 1996, faced with a desperate electoral crisis, embarking on the ‘deliberate politicisation of asylum, race and refugees in a desperate attempt to rally support as their poll ratings plummeted’.
In an important recent study of ‘social abjection and resistance’ Imogen Tyler describes ‘the asylum invasion complex’ which has dominated political and media debates and discourses since the Labour government’s asylum legislation of 1999 and 2000. Tyler tracks the way in which key notions, which we can now all recognise as signifiers of prejudicial or racist debate, emerged as a result of interventions by politicians mobilising opinion in a particular direction. In 2001 Conservative Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, not usually associated with xenophobic politics, writing in the Daily Mail introduced a range of xenophobic themes which have since been embedded in political cultures: ‘As Deputy Prime Minister (in 1995-7) I came to three stark conclusions. The first is that a very large number of those seeking asylum are cheats, quite deliberately making bogus claims and false allegations in order to get into this country … The second was that the demands on scarce housing and medical care made by dishonest “economic migrants” (were) likely to stretch the patience of voters … The third was that the problem of phoney asylum seekers was likely to grow as the impression spread that this country was a soft touch. Above all, I could see no reason why my most vulnerable constituents – honest and hard working people who paid their taxes all their lives – should be pushed to the back of the queue for housing and hospital treatment by dubious asylum seekers’.
Here, in the very first months of the new century, a powerful political consensus on asylum was being embedded across mainstream political parties establishing a vocabulary of ‘common sense racism’. Tyler tracks 512 references to bogus asylum seekers in Hansard in Commons and Lords debates between 1991 and 2005. In the 1980s there were eight mentions of the term.
The contribution of New Labour
Philip Gould, a key policy adviser and pollster for Tony Blair, in 1999 produced a paper called ‘Hard-working families: a new narrative for the government’ spelling out ’how the swirling fragments of public opinion were finally taking shape.’ Gould began to introduce an analysis of the electorate which to a large extent still dominates thinking in the Labour Party and beyond. This theory (or fiction) creates the myth that electoral political narratives should be driven by ‘the politics of grievance’ where working people, particularly the alleged ‘white working class’ instinctively blame ‘the immigrant’ for their economic and social exploitation and marginalisation.
‘A call for fairness has become a cry of grievance, resentment and anger, expressing the view that my life is bad because others are unfairly benefitting. Clearly this is fertile ground not just for the right but for the far right … every voice should be heard: we should listen to opinions that we may not like … The politics of grievance can be harsh … a start was made (by New Labour) in dealing with immigration.’
The media constructing a racist electorate
In fact in 1997 only 3 per cent of the electorate put asylum in their three top political concerns. Up to 2000 it was never higher than 10 per cent. But crucially: ’As the numbers of asylum applications began to rise … so did tabloid interest. This in turn fed more public concern … In early 2003 the Sun launched its ‘Stop asylum madness’ campaign which by 1 March 2003 had collected one million signatures’. The Mail, Express, Telegraph and the Sun competed with lurid headlines in 2002. Research suggested that the Mail and the Express were the most obsessive. In 2003 the Daily Express ran ’22 front page splashes in one 31 day period about asylum seekers’.
Phillip Gould, also during this period, constructed ‘the politics of patriotism’ which in 2002 he identified as ‘emerging in a new form, more about grievance than pride’. A policy note he wrote for Blair in April 2002 was unambiguous, entitled ‘Concern about asylum seekers has extended into immigration, crime, and civic disintegration. Britain is becoming a soft touch’.
Gary Younge, reporting on the re-emergence of immigration as an electoral issue in the general election of 2005, indicted politicians and their past rhetoric: David ‘Blunkett conflated immigration and race when responding to the riots in Bradford with calls for citizenship classes and language lessons as though those involved were foreign. “We have norms of acceptability” he said shortly before the reports into the disturbances was released. ”And those who come into our home- for that is what it is – should accept those norms just as we would have to do if we went elsewhere.”’
Daniel Trilling has recently revealed how Blunkett, Labour’s Home Secretary, overseeing the first wave of asylum dispersal after 2000, retrieved Thatcherite racist language for Labour election discourse. Blunkett, in a radio interview in April 2002, before local elections where the BNP was fielding candidates in former riot areas, ‘accused asylum seekers’ children of ‘swamping’ British schools’. Labour, threatened by a media frenzy and the growing success of Le Pen in France, decided to go for ‘triangulation’ to occupy the space opened up by the BNP. There was little evidence that voters were changing their opinions, but there was lots of evidence that a number of newspapers were engaged in changing them for them.
In February 2003, Tony Blair went on Newsnight and dramatically announced his abandonment of policies under the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, and an immediate cut in asylum claimants by 50 per cent over the next eight months ‘by making it extremely difficult for people fleeing from persecution to reach the shores of the UK’.
Together the press and politicians had shifted public opinion towards a moral panic on immigration and asylum. One survey in 2003 suggested that people then believed that the UK received 23 per cent of the world’s refugees. The true proportion was just under 2 per cent.
Anti-Gypsyism the media and politicians
From 2001 to 2004 the Labour government also embraced an openly racist immigration policy first towards Roma asylum seekers, and then for Roma migrant workers from countries joining the EU in 2004. In 2001 Jack Straw as Foreign Secretary instituted discriminatory visa policies aimed at Roma for Slovakian and Czech citizens and established visa desks in the British embassy in Bratislava and controversially ’a British immigration racist filter, [was] instituted by the British at Prague Ruzyně Airport on the 18th July 2001 with the tacit agreement of the Czech authorities’.
In a time when UKIP has mounted a campaign against Roma workers from eastern Europe coming to Britain, it is worth recalling these earlier events. In January 2004, a few months before the EU was to admit ten new members, eight of which were east and central European countries, ’the British popular press initiated an unprecedented witch-hunt, painting vivid pictures of hordes of impoverished East European Romanies swarming into the country. On January 18 2004, the Sunday Times proclaimed that East European Romanies were just waiting for the day of the EU’s eastern expansion to start out towards the West. The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, claimed that tens of thousands of “Gypsies” were standing ready to stream in … The following day, the number of Romanies prepared to “stream in” had, according to the Daily Express, grown to 1.6 million.’
The Daily Express proclaimed on 20 January 2004: ‘The Roma gypsies of Eastern Europe are heading to Britain to leech on us. We do not want them here’ (quoted in the Economist, 5 February 2004). On 5 February 2004, the Daily Express front page thundered in fat headlines: ‘GYPSIES YOU CAN’T COME IN’.
The British newspapers were clearly conducting a hate-campaign against people of Romani ethnicity. But no protests against this media witch-hunt were heard from politicians in Britain or other EU countries. Instead, the Labour government introduced restrictions on welfare benefits for jobseekers coming to Britain from the EU’s new member countries. ‘This could be seen as a silent endorsement of the British media’s anti-Romani campaign’.
This open collusion with the press on anti-Gypsyism emerged again with the Conservatives in the 2010 election. Leading up to the general election Eric Pickles won votes for the party at the General election particularly in the shires and suburbs of Tory England, highlighting a series of ‘illegal’ actions by Gypsies and Travellers. 
More recently this collusion with the press has continued in recent police actions against Roma in London. With more elections looming the press is highlighting the prejudiced policies of the Coalition on Gypsies and Travellers .
UKIP and the Roma of Bulgaria and Romania
From 2004 it is worth fast forwarding to 2012 and 2013, to the partnership between UKIP and the Daily Express, and the media in general, to prevent Roma from Bulgaria and Romania entering the UK freely as EU workers from January 2014. Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, has travelled to Bulgaria to dissuade ‘Bulgarians’ from coming to the UK but he was only filmed in ‘Roma’ communities. The British press now routinely prints photos exclusively of Roma families in articles on the ‘new migrant flood’.
In the Rotherham by-election of November 2012, where UKIP came second to Labour in its South Yorkshire heartlands, journalists understood that the case of the ‘UKIP couple’ who had been barred from fostering children, which Farage used incessantly during the campaign, was in fact the local authority following legal rulings on the placement of Roma children. The underlying anti-Gypsyism of UKIP’s campaign was widely seen as aimed at mobilising antagonism against Rotherham’s 3,500, mainly Slovak, Roma population. Roma organisations in Slovakia and the UK through press and TV coverage in Slovakia and street demonstrations in Bratislava in September 2012 had protested about allegations that British social workers had taken away 120 children from forty Slovak Roma families. There was a debate in the Council of Europe in December on the issue.
Nevertheless with all these complexities and background issues both David Cameron and Ed Miliband uncritically bought the UKIP version of events and criticised the Labour council’s childrens’ department. The result was second place for UKIP in the by-election and UKIP winning Rawmarsh a safe Labour local council seat, in last May’s elections.
‘Stop the East European Roma 2013’ – a racist carbon copy of the 2004 campaign (and a script from 2001)
David Cameron seemed to be following Blair’s example from 2004, when on 26 February 2013, in an interview with the Daily Express, a paper which had campaigned for the policy, he announced measures to restrict benefits to EU migrants.
On 8 March, Yvette Cooper Labour’s shadow Home Secretary ‘decided to outdo the government’s attempt to tighten new migrants’ access to benefits and services’ in her own proposals to stop them claiming job seekers allowance soon after arrival, and restricting payment of family benefits to dependents left in their own EU country. Cooper also seems to have taken the lesson from Tony Blair of matching every ‘tough’ initiative put forward by the Conservatives and, if possible, out-flanking them by proposing a few more practical solutions of your own’.
On 24 March the ‘race to the bottom’ continued with Cameron adding a pledge that new migrants would ’not get free housing’ and announcing restrictions on access to the NHS. Using the familiar xenophobic rhetoric he accused Labour in government of being a ‘soft touch’ and pledging that ‘his own plans to ensure the immigration system ‘backs people who work hard and do the right thing’ The broadsheet I led with the headline on the 25 March 2013: ‘P.M: let’s end “’soft touch” reputation for migrants’.
The script and narrative had not changed in essence since Michael Heseltine in 2001.
The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner Nils Muiznieks intervened in the debate on 30 March and said ‘it is unacceptable to treat Bulgarian and Romanian citizens like a scourge and … it is time to blow the whistle on such shameful rhetoric.’ He stated that restricting access to benefits housing and healthcare, ‘Will only increase their social exclusion, fuel anti-immigration rhetoric and create even more social problems in the long run.’ Muiznieks was clear that the political rhetoric was racist anti-Gypsyism. ‘A stigma is put on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens because of their origin … They need to be treated as everyone else not on the basis of assumptions or generalizations about their ethnic origin.’ He argued that ‘political leaders had a responsibility to turn round ‘the heated political debates in Britain and Germany on the threat posed by a supposed imminent flood of Roma from Bulgaria and Romania.’
Naming the racists, challenging the language – what can be done?
A recent tour by UKIP leader Nigel Farage was entitled the ‘Common Sense Tour’. This was a bold claim that the political discourse and narrative developed by UKIP was indeed the new ‘common sense’.
As Trilling has pointed out: ‘Ukip’s core positions on immigration and on cultural diversity appeal as far as they can, within the boundaries of acceptable language, to racism’.
Farage himself despite constant exposés of UKIP candidates and his personal links to nationalist and racist politicians in the Northern League in Italy, to Marine Le Pen and the FN in France, and to Finnish extremist nationalists, Farage himself has been given a very easy ride indeed with the British press and media.
Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian interviewed Farage in January and managed to almost joke about the sordid campaign of UKIP in Rotherham. She described Farage as: ‘one of the most surprising politicians I have met – charismatic, funny, indefatigably good natured and essentially cheerful towards absolutely everyone, apart from the prime minister and Rotherham council’.
In the middle of the debates over Farage’s longstanding fellow MEP Geoffrey Bloom, and his racist ‘Bongo Bongo land’ quotes, James Naughtie on the Today programme did actually joke with Bloom about his racist statement.
Perhaps BBC broadcasters are aware of pressures for them to move to the right in their news and current affairs production to mirror ‘common sense’. In a remarkable mea culpa the Corporation’s Trust published in July the findings of an independent inquiry into political bias particularly on immigration.
‘The public broadcaster had been slow to reflect concerns about immigration and seek out a broader range of opinions- including some ‘which ‘people like us’ may find unpalatable’ In the report Helen Boaden the former head of news and now head of BBC Radio apologised for the BBC’s ‘deep liberal bias’ on immigration issues in 2004 and conceded that ’the broadcaster did not take the views of lobby group Migration Watch ‘as seriously as it might have’ nine years ago’.
This presumably accounts for the ease with which spokesmen for groups like the EDL have been given air time over recent months. Boaden’s recollection of the use of Migration Watch as an authority on immigration is surely false – they seem to have become almost a fixture on many political programmes.
But pressure on the BBC to mirror extreme right opinions as part of the mainstream still continues with ‘research’ from the Centre for Policy Studies accusing the corporation of ‘Left wing bias’ for using material from more left-leaning think tanks than right-leaning ones. Report author Oliver Latham wrote in the Sunday Times to ‘Auntie’ with ‘real proof of your bias’.
Contesting common sense and the racist hegemony
Challenges are possible to this new constructed hegemony of common sense racism.
First perhaps we have to recognise that Britain on the level of discourse and political debate, and throughout its governing institutions and public policy is again becoming a recognisably racist society. Racism has become normal and mainstream.
John Lewis veteran civil rights campaigner has said recently (about the US):
‘This is not a post-racial society. Racism is still deeply embedded in society, and you can’t cover it up.’ This is surely relevant also for the UK.
In Racism and Education: Coincidence or Conspiracy? David Gillborn looking at racism in education argues ’the starting point … is a focus on racism, in particular its central importance and its routine (often unrecognised) character … It is vital to note that the term “racism” is used not only in relation to crude, obvious acts of race hatred but also in relation to the more subtle and hidden operations of power that have the effect of disadvantaging one or more minority ethnic groups.’
Secondly there has to be challenges to a political class who parade in the media, their own constructed political polling data and official ‘spin’ on government statistics as somehow ‘true’ representations of ‘the people’ or ‘public opinion’. David Stuckler has recently challenged the emerging orthodoxy that data from the British Social attitudes demonstrated that young Britons born after 1979 (Generation Y) were rejecting liberal and egalitarian views of the world. Stuckler simply rejects this and demonstrates that the data actually shows that young people’s support for increased spending on welfare actually rose 3.5 per cent from 2010 to 2011. He points to the number of mainstream newspaper articles using the word ‘scrounger’ rose from 173 in 2009 to 572 in 2011 with corresponding millions of hits on ‘Google’. He warns that ‘the repeated (but inaccurate) portrayal of young people being against social spending also perhaps ‘risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy’.
In the world of immigration and asylum the language of what Tyler calls ‘abjection’ is complete. The ‘illegal immigrant’ has reigned supreme as the description of choice. A new report from Migration Observatory shows its dominance in descriptions in the press over the past two years. But it is now being contested – from within the media. AP (Associated Press) in its most recent style guide for journalists has totally rejected the use of the term: ‘The style book no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal’ immigrant or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person.’ AP rejects the idea of ‘labelling people, instead of behaviour’.
Tyler argues for resistance through ‘counter mapping’, contesting terms and language and pushing alternative ways of seeing social issues and marginalised groups. Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak have deployed techniques of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to cut through the language of common sense racism. Fairclough also defines CDA as deconstructing the political uses of narratives for electoral politics on ’a terrain of hegemonic struggle‘.
This academic and critical theory resistance to racism is of course only powerful when linked to social movement and political resistance. As Gillborn argues, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is: ‘An interactive project of scholarship and social justice … (which) involves a reciprocal dialogue between scholarship and activism … activism is an essential component of CRT that challenges scholars to spend less time on abstract theorising and more time on actual community based anti-subordination practice.’
In the campaign against G4S and their outsourcing of asylum housing the term ‘asylum markets’, constantly used by G4S, was constantly critiqued and contested by campaigners; making the point that asylum housing was publicly funded social housing for refugees, or as Barnsley council described it on their website throughout the early campaign – ‘humanitarian housing for those fleeing persecution’. But the world of the ‘detention estate’ and the ‘failed asylum seeker’ described in the press and political discourse has been most effectively contested by recent resistance from refugees and asylum seekers themselves in hunger strikes, anti-deportation campaigning, and in their role in exposing G4S asylum housing abuse.
The wider anti-G4S campaign has exposed the sordid racist underworld of outsourcing and privatisation of public services. In her report, following the inquest into the killing of Jimmy Mubenga, coroner Karon Monaghan was scathing about racism within G4S: ‘a pervasive racism within G4S … It seems unlikely that endemic racism would not impact at all on service provision. The possibility that such racism might find reflection in race-based antipathy towards detainees and deportees, and that in turn might manifest itself in inappropriate treatment of them.’
A new anti-racist movement?
It may be a challenging time for anti-racist campaigners – even a ‘ground hog day’ experience with current political and media obsessions constantly revisiting racist trigger issues and language – ‘invasions’ and ‘floods’ of migrants, racialised ‘grooming’ scandals, ‘forced marriage’, ’illegal Gypsy camps’, ’millions of Roma heading west’ and of course ‘Go Home’.
In the midst of this racist atmosphere Chris Bryant’s attempt to present Labour’s immigration policies as somehow new, succeeded only in stirring up the racist ‘British jobs for British workers’ elements in the trades unions and the media. His and Ed Miliband’s call for ‘language tests for care workers’ simply fed into ongoing prejudiced campaigns on translation costs in local government and the NHS, and language issues in multicultural schools. In the 2011 census returns, as Hugh Muir reminds us, ‘Only 1.6 % of the population said they could not speak English well and only 0.3% of the total population don’t speak English at all’ .
It is surely time to reinvent and organise an effective wider anti racist resistance movement bringing the many campaigns together. The Tories’ racist ‘Go Home’ campaign on ‘illegal’ migrants may have become the last straw. Meena Patel of Southall Black Sisters describes the developing protests in London: ‘People were reporting that people were being stopped on the pretext of checking travel tickets. It’s like something from Nazi Germany’, she said. ‘It’s undermining people’s right to live here’. Saying the climate had ‘echoes’ of the 1970s, she said: ‘We’re back on the streets, it looks like it. They were the days when we were fighting the state and its racist policies, people were on the streets, shoulder to shoulder – and it looks like we are back there.’