The Hostile Environment

Between the 22nd July and 22nd August 2014, the Home Office, then headed by future Prime Minister Theresa May, launched a campaign to ‘encourage’ immigrants that were deemed illegal to leave Britain. The campaign was titled Operation Vaken and coincided with the passing of the 2014 Immigration Bill. In May’s speech before the passing of the bill she made clear her intention to “take things further” and create a “hostile environment” in the hope that “illegal” immigrants would “leave voluntarily”. Operation Vaken included multiple vans touring inner-city London boroughs with the slogan “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST” printed along the sides.

Simultaneously, the company Capita were outsourced the duty of sending out 40,000 “Go Home” texts to people they ‘believed’ had overstayed their welcome in the UK by the government. Even the decaying racist relic that is Nigel Farage described the content of the operation as “unpleasant”. Turns out Vaken is a Swedish word that roughly translates to ‘Awake’ or ‘Awaken’ in English and Erwache or Erwachen in modern German and in 1922 Dietrich Eckhart, labelled “The National Father of Socialism”, authored the famous poem Deutschland Erwache (Germany Awaken). The poem was adapted into a song titled ‘Stormlied’ (Storm Song!) by the early paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party in the 1920’s and 30’s and would come to be emblazoned on banners at rallies, Hitler himself dedicated the second volume of Mein Kampf to Eckart.

Whether or not the Home Office were aware of such connotations remains unknown, however they would have been more than aware of what they were “awakening” in Britain. The “Hostile Environment” policy haunted the discourse around immigration all the way up to the 2016 Referendum, where sleight of hand of privileged, white and predominantly male politicians, tacticians and tits alike directed the discourse through an almost entirely racialised lens. The effects of structural decline in the 1970’s that impacted almost every part of the U.K, excluding London, and were then further compounded by Tory austerity following the 2008 financial crash, appeared to be as relevant a topic to the subject of Brexit as it would have been on a daytime shopping channel in Kazakhstan.

The politics of immigration in Britain are entwined with politics of “race”, which in turn is fuelled by conceptions of national identity and homogeneity. Repeatedly, the process of national decline is portrayed as coinciding with the dilution of a once “racial homogeneous” country. Not only has this myth been peddled by politicians, but the idea that a small island in the North Sea contains a population of innately superior beings has been central to our education system for centuries. The pertinence of this cannot be overstated in where we found ourselves today.  The “Hostile Environment” policy that poisoned and exacerbated Brexit was fostered by Theresa May but not formed, this has long been an informal policy of successive governments even if it hadn’t been spelt out on a side of the van.

Following the Second World War, the British Cabinet Manpower Working Party had estimated Britain needed 1,346,000 additional workers in order to rebuild the country following its devastation during the Blitz. In an effort to fulfil this quota, 100,000 Polish Armed Forces and their families as well as 80,000 Eastern European Displaced Persons were given permanent right to settle in the same year. However, despite the Nationalities Act 1948 entitling all Members of the Commonwealth to the right of residence and citizenship in Britain, Prime Minister Clement Attlee enquired if Windrush could be diverted and passengers be offered work in the groundnut fields of East Africa. On 22 June 1948 the Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks but while the Evening Standard published the headline of “Welcome Home” -11 Labour MP’s wrote to Atlee expressing their opinion that British society had been “blessed by the absence of a colour racial problem” in effort to deter any further immigration from the Caribbean.

Between 1945 to 1950 only 5,000 Caribbean immigrants arrived in Britain. The racism faced by Windrush passengers highlighted the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion while specifying who may legitimately belong to the national community. The arrival of 180,000 Polish Soldiers and Displaced Persons were largely welcomed. This is not to suggest that they didn’t face any discrimination – however, their arrival sought to reproduce the racial homogeneity, preserve the “order of things” and the metaphysics of “Britishness”. While European Voluntary Workers were given help in finding both work and housing by the state, black post war migrants were denied any state assistance and confined to the poorest parts of British cities, race was to become a prohibiting factor for passengers arriving from the Caribbean and as a result:

“the word ‘immigrant’ became synonymous with the word ‘black’ resulting in black British Citizens being denied authentic national membership on the basis of their ‘race’ and, at the same time, presented from aligning themselves within the British ‘race’” (Gilroy, 1987)

Despite the attendance of colonial schools, that emphasised that Caribbean and Commonwealth citizens were equal to the citizens of the “Mother country”  and despite many having served that “Mother country” in the war and even despite the entitlement to British Citizenship within the “Mother country’, all of these factors were surplus to the requirement of “race” for “authentic national membership”. Meanwhile the last Queen, an apparent embodiment of “Britishness”, who was even half British by birth was Queen Anne in 1702 and furthermore the royal family only changed their surname from the distinctly Germanic Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in 1917 in order to downplay the anti-German sentiment, induced by the First World War. Even the German (British) royal family saw the paradox of qualities needed to qualify as “British”.

If there was any doubt as to the intentions of the political class, in discussion with the Governor of Jamaica, Winston Churchill who had been re-elected in 1951, said continued migration would “create a magpie society: that would never do.” The idea of limiting the right to reside to 5 years for Commonwealth citizens was proposed inside the government but as Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary put it “the minute we say we’ve got to keep these black chaps out, the whole Commonwealth lark would have blown up”. Churchill would go on to suggest the slogan of “Keep Britain White” for the 1955 Election which was thought better of considering the paradox of having just won a war against a fascist nation with eugenic based pseudoscientific racist theory at the heart of its ideology while also trying to exploit constructs of race to win votes.

The turn of the decade marked a point where the wider public had, at large, caught up with the narrative being peddled by their leaders. The 1964 by-election in Smethwick, West Midlands, saw Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate run with the campaign slogan “If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour”. Griffiths won the election with a 7% swing from what was previously a Labour constituency. Four years later, in 1968, Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech marked a distinct and deliberate shift in the epistemology of racism within the UK.

The construction of black British citizens as a “preventable evil” around the false notion that black British youth were a threat to an otherwise civil law-abiding society, was personified by an elderly white female who had sent Powell the letter he references in his speech. The counterposing of black British citizens to a preeminent symbol of national culture; legality. The importance of legality in this instance is that the British Court of Law is an emblem of Queen and Country, it is something that Britain prides itself upon and has widely exported to other nation states. As a result, the essentialist reduction of young black citizens, down to their identity being solely a product of their race, served as a “metonym [substitute] for the incompatibility of blacks as whole with English life” (Gilroy,1987).

“At one level, Powells intervention merely expanded the hole in official political culture through which Peter Griffiths had first introduced a genuinely populist politics of ‘race’. The political language of Powellism that followed, secured the crucial link between ‘race’ and nation by focusing attention on the issue of legality and then on the violation of the constitution by blacks.” (Gilroy, 1987)

Forty-eight years later the similar sentiments around the notion of “nationhood” would rear their heads again. This time campaign slogans, although refined in language, were equally as clear in message. The construction of immigrants as a threat to the “Great” British nation was a clear tactic by Leave.EU Farage sought to portray immigrants as some sort of triple threat; economic, security and sexual. The economic threat sought to appeal to the sentiment that white British workers had been the victim of globalisation. The security threat intertwined both the policy of freedom of movement that EU citizens enjoyed and the mass migration to Europe following the Arab Spring, amounting to insinuation that Britain was a borderless state as a member of the European Union that could not implement immigration controls to keep out “undesirables”. Finally, the sexual predator aspect which emerged after the reports of sexual assault in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, which were pounced upon by seasoned bigots like Nigel Farage. The slogan of “Take Back Control” neatly aligned restrictions on “undesirable” immigrants not only with making Britain safe again, but also with exercising one’s democracy. In these terms to vote “Leave” was to “return” power to oneself.

The dog whistle discourse around immigration in the lead up to Brexit worked in front of the backdrop of over a decade and a half of Islamophobic media discourse. Moral panics of religious practices ranging from women’s attire to slaughtering and butchering customs were conducted by the press who had seemingly become experts of the official religion of 26 countries spread across 3 continents overnight following 9/11. “British” values, that promote a euro centric variety of secularism, became mobilized to accuse migrants of fundamentalism and proclamations of “universalism” affirmed the opposite, instead it became a ruse that policed and penalized migrants.

Despite the referendum being concerned with European migration to Britain, the tactic of racialising migration meant that the Leave campaigns rarely, if ever, depicted Scandinavian, German, French or Dutch persons as the immigrant “underclass” that were threatening British society.  The “Breaking Point” poster pulled out by the Leave.EU campaign could have just as easily had the slogan of “Keep Britain White” proposed for Churchill’s election campaign 61 years earlier. Just like the post-war governments had sought to stem immigration from the Commonwealth because of the “threat of a magpie society”, Leave.EU aimed to use the image of primarily Syrian refugees escaping war to create a dog whistle discourse where the term “immigrant” became a byword for racialised non-Europeans.

Months after the referendum in October 2017, the then leader of UKIP, Henry Bolton pronounced “in certain communities the indigenous Anglo-Saxon population were nowhere to be seen”. Not only is it an interesting statement considering Mr Bolton was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but also because without conducting DNA ancestry tests presumably the only way to qualify members of a community as Anglo-Saxon would be through hazarding a guess based upon the colour of their skin. However all of this is to miss the point that the term Anglo-Saxon has been deliberately manufactured to misconstrue British history.

Today the term Anglo Saxon is a convenient label for those opposed to future immigration. While it collectively describes some post Roman and early medieval culture, it has never accurately described a biological ethnicity not an indigenous people. The DNA evidence points to an integrated people of mixed ancestry who lived side by side. Anglo Saxon ancestry is a modern English myth – the English are not descended from one people, but form many and that persists in our culture and genes. 

– (Duncan Sayer, 2017. Archaeologist  at the University of Central Lancashire)

Simultaneously to Leave.EU populist insular nationalism, Boris Johnson and Vote Leave relentlessly campaigned for a “Global Britain” following Brexit, evoking warm memories of the British empire where hegemony was exercised over the globe. Talk of “reconnecting” with the Commonwealth fuelled the horizonless opportunities that Brexit would bring, so much so that Liam Fox’s post Brexit trade plans were dubbed “Empire 2.0” within Whitehall. Within this deluded nostalgic search for lost empire there was not a single acknowledgement of the vast crimes committed by the British Empire or the corrosive legacy it had created through its use of pseudoscience to justify not just racism but it’s greatest crime, the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However the myth making process around the British Empire is so ingrained into our national psyche that it’s hard to overstate the impacts of centuries of deliberate miseducation. Around 60% of age groups over 65 voted to Leave and in the 1960’s they would have been attending schools in which their geography textbooks included such quotes as:

“under the guidance of Europeans, Africa is steadily being opened up… doctors and scientists are working to improve the health of Africans, missionaries and teachers are educating the people… The Europeans have brought civilization to the people of Africa… whose standards of living have been raised by contact with white people” 

Unsurprisingly you would have heard a very different story from descendants of the 10,000 Kenyans murdered in an uprising against colonial rule in the 1950’s. These lies still continue today, guidance introduced by future Brexiteer Michael Gove in 2013 insists history teaches “how Britain has influenced the wider world”. A poll taken in January 2016, six months prior to the referendum, showed 44% of British people thought Britain’s history of colonialism was something to be proud of and only 19% thought it should be regretted.

While the public have been purposely misled in their delusion of imperial grandeur, many of the architects of Brexit owe the delusions of grandeur to their lived experiences. Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s sole MP during the referendum was raised in Uganda; Arron Banks, bankroller of  UKIP and Leave.EU, spent his childhood in South Africa while his father ran sugar estates as well as in Kenya, Ghana and Somalia; Robert Oxley, head of media for Vote Leave, also has strong family ties to Zimbabwe. One can only wonder how this influenced these Great British “patriots” in their formative years.

Through the shameless circumvention and reconstruction of history, Johnson and Co portrayed British imperial history to be a pride filled symbol of national culture in a similar manner to the use of law and order by Enoch Powell in 1968. Just as Powell portrayed the image of a once law-abiding and orderly society lost at the hands of “wide grinning piccaninnies”  (a term later borrowed by Johnson himself), Boris and Vote Leave architects aimed to stir a similar sentiment of national loss and decline through deluded recollections of when “Britannia ruled the waves” meanwhile insinuating that leaving the EU would return Britain to its former “glory”. 

The Hostile Environment purveyed by the state throughout the 20thcentury and into the 21st has been emboldened by the 2016 referendum result, we now find ourselves under the rule of what is perhaps the most extreme right populist government this country has ever seen. However, this failure is shared across the political spectrum, it’s almost ironic that last week Labour party strategists suggested the party embrace “patriotism, flag waving and national identity” to win back voters. This form of “patriotism” suggested by Labour party researchers is deep rooted in militarist imperialism and not the democratic socialist beliefs the party supposedly stands for. Patriotism cannot be claimed without preconceived notions about what the nation state is; this is why the delusions of grandeur around empire and constructions of race as a technology of governance are so potent in creating a hostile environment and urgently need addressing.

This nostalgic approach to imperial British history and the continued imperial mindset of many of our political leaders will continue to haunt Britain’s relationship with immigration and identity for as long as it is not addressed at a foundational level. As a nation we need to acknowledge this country’s toxic relationship with patriotism, identity and racism that has been developed through deliberate miseducation. Not only because of the way they have been used to support and explain the genocide of empire as a “civilizing” mission, but also because “patriotism” and “national identity” in this country have now become synonyms for ethnonationalism. Britain was developed and sustained not because of the pseudo-scientific superiority of white people but because, as Du Bois described it, the presumed “divine right for white people to steal”.