Tag Archives: myth

The Post-Racial Immigration Myth

My first thought when watching Nick Robinson’s much-vaunted programme, The Truth About Immigration, at the start of the month was: “Well, it could have been worse” – which is more of a reflection of the tenor of the immigration debate at the moment than the programme.

Much of it was predictable. At one point, he interviewed the former head of the Equality Commission, Trevor Philips, who agreed with Robinson that the discussion of immigration is now separated from race. That set off an alarm in my head that continued to niggle at me until the end, when with a self-satisfied, almost triumphant air, he declared that the immigration discussion is “a debate that’s hardly been had.”


Robinson touched on two arguments that I’ve seen more since, and which are interconnected.

1. We are now finally having the immigration debate

2. Because, finally, the immigrations debate is decoupled from race, especially as we are now speaking in the context of a debate about European migration from Eastern Europe.

Collier has also made this argument. My questions is, when was this silence? The debate has been raging since before the first immigration controls were enacted, and many of the same arguments we see today about the changing nature of the country have been made for decades against one group or another.

However, immigration under the Labour government did coincide with greater anxiety about globalisation, a change that I don’t think was really explained to people – nor were their concerns really listened to. In the rush to “listen” to people over immigration now, it’s interesting to note that this is the only issue on which the political class is willing to really interact with the public. Food banks? Monster the Trussell Trust. Bedroom tax? Deny, deny, deny. The government is willing to fudge statistics, suppress reports (like the politically inconvenient one that found immigration a net benefit to the country) and just ignore the pressures put on the NHS, housing and other areas – but on immigration? They scramble to look responsive to people’s perceptions, even if they are misinformed.

But, onto the second part of this argument – that race and immigration are now decoupled from one another, and in this post-racial environment we can now have this debate at last. Not true. The fact that racial abuse in schools is up 69%¬†as a result of this rhetoric shows that there is a racial element to this debate. The “Go Home” van electrified people precisely because that language is not a harmless suggestion, but a phrase that the far right has used against migrants (and settled citizens who are ethnic minorities) in this country for decades.

To debate immigration is not racist. But if you co-opt the language of racists and use it to pander to racism in the general public (real or perceived) then yes, that is racist.

What I see happening now is not the decoupling of race and immigration, but a collapse of the wall between mainstream and far-right discourse and the subtle rehabilitation of Enoch Powell. The consequences for community relations are real. We can see them in the playground and hear them “from the mouths of babes.”

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In Praise of Acts of Union and Disunion

“The divided and contentious nature of these islands is hardly exceptional and it’s hardly surprising. Although Britain is sometimes viewed still as an old and stable country, these in fact are selective visions. Historically speaking, Great Britain and still more the United Kingdom are in some respects recent and synthetic constructs that have often been contested and in flux in the past…as they are now.”

I am working my way through, and thoroughly enjoying, the BBC Radio 4 series with historian Linda Colley Acts of Union and Disunion – putting this country in historical context and looking at the national myths and heritage. In short, 15 minute bites, she looks at different aspects – being an island, this country’s relationship with the sea, the monarchy, etc – to explore what it all means. Timely, given Scotland’s decision on the future of the Union, but also comforting, given the raging anti-migrant rhetoric that refers to some homogenous, static Britain that never existed, being corrupted by voices from the old and new world.

It’s poetic and rather glorious. I find myself intrigued but also reminded of what I find so fascinating about the UK: its idiosyncrasies, its nations and countries, how it sees itself, how it sees the world. I also find it comforting to take the long view of history, the reminder of how much is contested and constantly being negotiated, and renegotiated, and constructed and remade.

Colley is a witty, engaging host, easily drawing you in to the themes of the programme. In particular, I liked her commentary on identity and the difficulty of applying fixed labels to people. We are very rarely ever one thing, and the same goes for our countries. She points out that it’s not the break up of states that’s notable, but their ability to cohere in the first place – and evolving and believing stories about themselves helps.

If African countries did similar programmes it would be so interesting. I will never forget my visit to the dinosaur museum in Karonga, Malawi last year. It was a small exhibit but it packed a punch and put more recent events, such as colonisation, in their place.

So often history is a battleground for jingoism and confected nationalism – but I am really enjoying this clear-eyed, sometimes humorous, rather affectionate reflection on these islands, her nations and her peoples.

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