Thursday, October 06, 2016

When prejudice became acceptable

The 23rd June 2016 is not only the date when British citizens by a small majority voted for the UK to leave the European Union, it also marks the point when prejudice became mainstream. Prior to then any commentary on immigration had to be couched in the terms that it was not racist to talk of limits. But in the days following the referendum result there was a spike in reports of hate crimes. The tone of debate had fundamentally changed. What might have been appropriate to say quietly within small groups, or for certain political figures within UKIP to daub on a poster, was now openly said to those who would feel most threatened and violated. The atmosphere of prejudice which was symbolised by the signs 'No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs', signs only ended by the 1965 Race Relations Act, had returned.

One can understand how the living conditions many face, living near to or in poverty, on a minimum rather than a living wage, on part-time or zero-hours contracts, with families to feed, can lead them to seek someone to blame. Some can blame political elites for a lack of regulation, some the corporations for their greed and lack of corporate social responsibility, others can blame migrant workers. During the EU referendum campaign one strand of argument was that uncontrolled migration was the major factor in depressing wages, giving power to employers, and putting a strain on public services. In the many areas where de-industrialization has taken its toll this claim resonated and in large numbers those areas voted to leave. Or rather they voted for a better future for themselves and hoped their vote would make things better as they struggled to see their situations getting worse.

Theresa May's vision for "creating a fairer, more equal society" took shape this week, and in doing so played directly to prejudice. While her conference speech did not say that immigrants are to blame for all societal ills, it can be interpreted that way. The following phrasing is important here:

"And if you’re one of those people who lost their job, who stayed in work but on reduced hours, took a pay cut as household bills rocketed, or – and I know a lot of people don’t like to admit this – someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration, life simply doesn’t seem fair".

The phrasing contains an important caveat, 'if''. But whether the 'if' is heard is a question. The line that "someone who finds themselves out of work or on lower wages because of low-skilled immigration" finds life unfair will resonate. But more importantly it plays to a prejudice that exists, that same prejudice that emerged on June 23rd. Her words may be a ploy to undermine support for Labour or UKIP among the working class, but it is also very divisive. Britain today, like many countries, is made up of myriad groups. Some may descend from immigration from Normandy or Scandinavia, some from the Commonwealth, others from the European Union; Britain is literally a nation of immigrants. But immigration is now becoming a reference point for societies ills. May's speech says that low-skilled immigration is bad and must stop, one must therefore wonder what she meant by community and citizenship when a few minutes later she called Britain "a country built on the bonds of family, community, citizenship". What is the community, what makes a citizen and who does this exclude? And in the new Conservative vision it is not just low-skilled immigration that is under fire.

One must inquire what it really means to develop policy to "put the interests of the British people first". Home Secretary Amber Rudd's speech said much that was laudable. But the way that the terms immigration and immigrants was used reinforces a stereotype that these are people who exploit loopholes to gain, among other things, student visas, taxi licences, bank accounts. How British people should view immigrants is perhaps made clear in the statement "I also come here today with a warning to those that simply oppose any steps to reduce net migration: this Government will not waver in its commitment to put the interests of the British people first." The message here is clear: migration is not in the interests of British people and must be restricted. Britain, it would seem, is to be only for the British - whatever that means.

What either May or Rudd really meant is not important. Some will cry racism, others will cry realism; but it is the perception of what is meant that matters. Those who have xenophobic views will have found much succour in these speeches. Furthermore they may feel able to make practical steps in working towards achieving government policy by making those they think might be immigrants (independent of their place of birth, their reason for being in the country or the length of their tenure) unwelcome. I find this profoundly worrying, hence the return to blogging after almost three years. The language and argumentation suggests that all those coming from outside of the country attack the interests of the British. It does not differentiate between the pimp, the drug runner, the dentist, the refugee, the plumber or the surgeon - they are one, they are the immigrant. It also may give permission to the racist fringe of society to target anyone, based on skin colour or accent, as the outsider, the threat to British interests. Is that what British values are now, have we become a nation of prejudice? If government policy is a reflection of national sentiment we have taken a giant leap towards being more prejudiced and more xenophobic, rolling back the tide of the last fifty years.