If you want to learn something about the state of political debate in the UK right now, you could do worse than to read through the public reaction to the UK Home Office’s decision last week to tweet out pictures of alleged “illegal immigrants” being arrested, along with the promise that with new legislation “there will be no hiding place.”
The national debate? There isn’t one. No politicians have objected and our hitherto controversy-hungry press has let the tweets pass without a murmur. The politicians have all decided, perhaps correctly, that the electoral risk of being seen as “soft” on immigration is too great. (“Immigration” is the polite word we use to describe people coming to the UK who are either non-white or from eastern Europe, and by which we pretend to each other that there is no racial element to our xenophobia. White British people cannot be immigrants anywhere in the world — when we work abroad we are “expatriates”.)
Writer Musa Okwonga did an excellent post on his blog, titled A Thousand Questions on a Home Office Tweet. Here are some of them:
Who within Government thought this tweet was a good idea?… Why was it tweeted? Is it some sort of twisted focus group exercise to gauge the public’s hostility? How many people who see it will quietly nod in approval? How many of those people are people whom I work with or would regard as friends or casual acquaintances? … Why does this image remind me of human trafficking? Does the Home Office see illegal immigrants as cattle? Is this really where we want to take this conversation about immigration? If this tweet were published by the BNP or the EDL, would there be far greater uproar? How many voters will forget the nastiness of this communication come election day? Will anyone in the Home Office ever come forward to explain it? Is this the beginning of a deliberate online strategy to whip up public anti-immigration sentiment? Will the Lib Dems distance themselves from it? Will Labour?… Since when did controlling immigration go from being about the efficient management of resources to the naked and aggressive ostracism of foreigners? What is this tweet trying to distract us from? Where will this ideology lead if it goes unchecked? How many thugs will be emboldened in their hate by this tweet? Why aren’t more people angry about this? Why do people find it so easy to shrug it off? Is it really the case that illegal immigrants must be chased from house to house as if the Home Office were ratcatchers?
But other than Okwonga, virtually nothing. Clearly we are now a society where this kind of thing is acceptable, expected, welcomed — not only coming from right-wing politicians (like current immigration minister Mark Harper, pictured) but from our “apolitical” civil servants too.
Notwithstanding our collective failure to understand racism as something more than a list of banned words, there hasn’t even been any controversy regarding the sheer nastiness of the tweets. At the very least they ought to be considered what we like to call “an affront to common decency”. But evidently common decency has shifted.
We read those tweets and we can’t discern any political content. At a time when the so-called “austerity” agenda imposed by the Conservative-LibDem government is viciously targeting the most vulnerable groups, this kind of hateful display of power against the powerless is taken as straightforward common sense.
This in the same fortnight that yet more evidence came to light of the extensive and long-running campaign organised by the Metropolitan Police to smear the family of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
This as the inquiry into the shooting of Azelle Rogers in 2005 was being reported on prominently. Rogers was shot six times by a police marksman. From the Guardian’s reporting:
The shooting happened in daylight in April 2005. Police had been watching Rodney and others in the car, believing they were armed and on their way to rob a Colombian drugs gang at gunpoint.As the car Rodney was travelling in approached a roundabout in Edgware, north London, the police order was given: “Attack, attack, attack.” One officer who was part of the team following Rodney and two others in the car, had decided to take a video camera and record the incident. An officer’s voice can be heard saying, “Sweet as,” three times, while a total of eight shots are fired in rapid succession.
And of course who can forget the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, who was shot eleven times with hollow-point bullets at point blank range while restrained by police on an underground train in 2005. When it emerged that he was a Brazilian on his way to repair someone’s fire alarm, an important part of the police’s strategy was to smear de Menezes. Not only had he apparently jumped the ticket barrier (untrue, he had paid with his Oyster card) but — worse — he was an illegal immigrant. Public debate at the time focused not on the actions of our brave boys, but on de Menezes’ immigration status, with a widespread feeling that if indeed he was living in the UK illegally then the police’s decision to fire rounds into an innocent man to the point that his body was left unrecognisable was altogether more justifiable than if he had been “legal”. Whatever the moral searching that might have been occasioned by the killing of someone with a valid visa, nothing so serious would be required for an illegal immigrant. (Menezes was living in the country lawfully at the time, but enough people had believed him an illegal immigrant at the time for the crisis to be averted).
We never learn. “Take a tough line” now, and repent at leisure. Someone else’s public inquiries are a small price to pay for the popularity a nice bit of racism can get you. Just as with the recent Mau-Mau case, we will go on kidding ourselves.
If the Home Office’s tweets seems confusing, it’s because the violence they express might appear to be unnecessary for a government whose main objective is to hollow out the UK’s public institutions as quickly as possible. David Cameron is a slick PR guy — so what’s with the bigotry? In a recent essay called “The Neoliberal Revolution” (download here, quote’s from p 17), Stuart Hall provides a rationale on this:
Ideology is always contradictory. There is no single, integrated ‘ruling ideology’… few strategies are so successful at winning consent as those which root themselves in the contradictory elements of common sense, popular life and consciousness. Even today, the market/free enterprise/private property discourse persists cheek by jowl with older conservative attachments to nation, racial homogeneity, Empire, tradition. ‘Market forces’ is good for restoring the power of capital and destroying the redistributivist illusion. But in moments of difficulty one can trust ‘the Empire’ to strike back.