Tag Archives: rhetoric

A very modern witch hunt

downloadI have  long list of books on my to-read list. At the moment I’m thoroughly enjoying Roxane Gray’s Bad Feminist, but now I’ve added the Penguin Book of Witches to my (constantly mushrooming) list.

The NPR review highlights that this is more than just an interesting trawl through history; the past has resonances in the present, particularly with regards to the reasons behind the witch hunts (in addition to a hatred/fear of women):

“Many of the scholarly conclusions as to what underscored the witch hunts are exculpatory, to some degree: it was agricultural ignorance, or it was a mold outbreak, or it was something else comfortingly remote from a contemporary audience.

And the most haunting truth that emerges in The Penguin Book of Witches is that there’s no such reassurance to be found. The reasons behind the accusations were certainly varied, but in their simplest form, the witch hunts happened when government seized the chance to prove its authority by persecuting those outside community protection.”

The review also touches on the difficulty of mounting a nuanced, counter-narrative to propaganda and critiquing government institutions, which made me think of the immigration and welfare debates.

I rant and rave all the time on these two topics because the government’s tone in these “debates” is downright offensive. It promotes the message that people on benefits (the majority of whom are pensioners or working poor) are “on the take” or lazy is a horrid throwback to a Victorian-style morality on poverty.

When it comes to immigration, government agencies – the Home Office in particular – paint caricatures of immigrants in much the same way, except they are able to steal jobs and welfare at the same time. Anecdotes are presented as trends or facts. Evidence is suppressed if it is inconvenient or misconstrued wherever possible.

That it’s the government doing this, with its resources and ability to influence and distort the media and public agenda, is truly dispiriting. It presents a real challenge to marginalised communities and civil society organisations to battle against, as the public mood is stoked and soured.

What I find revealing about both of these debates is that they are on issues that the government is struggling to assert its authority on. Some of this is out of its control. Globalisation means that people are on the move around the world, and despite the anguish of UKIPpers, it’s not one-way traffic (ask the Spanish about the transformation of places like Costa del Sol into British enclaves).

When it comes to welfare, you can’t look at that without looking at the world of work and the fact is that too many people aren’t earning enough to live with dignity without a top-op from the government. I’ll leave it to economists to ascertain how much control the government has over that – but I’m leaning towards the fact that it has a big lever that it can use to make the markets work better for people  – no, for me the real striking similarity on both issues is that the government will not (cannot?) be honest with people about the issues.

Let’s go with “will not”.

They won’t say that we can’t (if that’s your gripe) stop immigration, but we can prepare better and make it work for the country, equipping local councils to deal with changing populations and the pressure on public services.

They won’t say that it has helped to build Britain as we know it and is key to continuing this.

They won’t say that most of the welfare budget goes to pensioners, and they are the ones who vote, so they try to tread gently there and come down harder on everyone else.

They won’t say that for some people, work doesn’t pay more than benefits and this is a problem with the WORK, not the benefits, if the assessment for what you need to live with dignity is a figure higher than what the private sector is offering in some cases.

They won’t say that benefit fraud is a tiny amount, compared to tax evasion.

They won’t admit that blame for the crash lies with the financial sector but that the public is paying for it – that they are the biggest benefits recipients of all, and they still get to profit and gamble with the blank cheque that we’ll always pick up the bill with a bail-out.

And so if you don’t diagnose the problem properly, your solutions won’t hit the mark. Furthermore, when your solutions inevitably fail (immigration cap as a case in point) you doubly disappoint and further undermine public trust in politicians. At the same time, you’ve talked up the problem to the point that it’s a perpetual crisis – a crisis that you now can’t address because the solutions (stop immigration!) are impossible in the real world.

So….you assert your authority. The best way to do that is a modern-day witch hunt.



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IDS watch

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: is anyone monitoring Iain Duncan Smith? How has he survived two reshuffles? How does he just get to “reset” a project that has cost *hundreds of millions of pounds* and it’s not front page news? If I could do infographics I would look at the amount wasted by DWP on IDS’s legacy project and the amount spent on the unjust, punitive bedroom tax, among other measures. How can we allow policies that disproportionately affect ethnic minorities and the disabled, causing hardship and distress, and allow IDS to obfuscate and waste money like this?

The answer is, of course, that when it comes to austerity and welfare, it’s ideological. That there was a need to cut the deficit is beyond doubt, but what’s going on now fails on its own terms. It’s just perverse that the coalition is willing to fritter away millions in the pursuit of dismantling the state and the safety net.

If I was to don my tin foil conspiracy theory hat, I’d say these are the actions of a group of ideologues who know that they may not be here to finish the job after the election, so they’re inflicting the maximum amount of damage now, in the hope that it cannot be reversed. And Labour, of course, has next to nothing to say on this for fear of being cast as the party of “welfare cheats”. They won’t even try to speak about the suffering and hardship being felt by so many, or the fact that the majority of those on benefits are pensioners. They will play it safe, hoping that they can just squeak past the finish line at the election with the support of people like me, who cannot abide what’s happening now but have no other viable political choice. I suspect that the hobbled vision may not be as successful as they hope.

And where does that leave us? Clegg, with no mandate, as king maker to either party, who will continue this project to fundamentally alter the State beyond all recognition, supplanting a democratic mandate with a consensus won through the demonisation of immigrants, the poor, the disabled and the unemployed, and fashioning a nastier, smaller-minded nation that’s as much afraid of its own shadow as these groups so helpfully cast as the dangerous “other”?

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She Has a Name

I wrote this for Independent Voices: “In the storm over Mark Harper, another immigrant to this country has been dehumanised and fogotten.”

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Retreat and Reframe

Although we’re only 12 days into the year, the immigration rhetoric has been coming thick and fast. But something that I’ve mentioned before is the reframing of almost every other issue that touches people’s lives in terms of immigration. So, rather than discuss the effect of cuts and privatisation on the NHS, politicians discuss benefit tourism. Instead of a jobs plan for unemployed young people, we hear about closing loopholes for foreign workers. I was blown away to see the usually wise and measured Polly Toynbee making the case for the living wage as a way to curb immigration.

With the exception of benefit tourism, which is being over-hyped for political gain, many of the other measures, such as a the living wage, are good in and of themselves, as a matter of social and economic justice. But immigration is the primary lens through which everything is being seen at the moment. This may give politicians an emotional lever to pull, but it’s a toxic strategy. With perceptions on immigration out of step with reality, this just validates everyone’s misperceptions and makes it even more likely that we will see more policy solutions in search of problems.

Something else I’ve noticed is how critics of immigration, such as Nigel Farage, are increasingly dismissing economic arguments as cold, dry figures in favour of a discussion on the social effects of immigration. I think this is partly because most of the economic data shows that immigration is on balance a benefit to the UK. But I also think it’s because it’s easier to debate the nebulous concepts of integration and assimilation. I do think it must be discussed and it is an issue, but I don’t think it’s either/or. And, while I do agree with blogger Sunny Hundal that it’s an argument that we can win,  I disagree with the reasons why he supports a shift in emphasis.

As I’ve blogged before, British Future found that the issue of integration is a vexed one, with the “laundry list” for migrants from often idealised version of who we want to be:

“It can be difficult for migrant voices to be heard whenever the integration debate becomes framed as a question of “them and us” – especially ‘why can’t they be like us?’ – rather than the two-way street of how we work together to make the new “us” work.”

 I think it’s pointless to discuss the social impact of immigration without looking at other (often economic) factors – in the form of decisions about spending – on housing, schools, hospitals because  pressure on these resources contribute to community tensions, with immigrants all too often the lightning rods for frustration at lack of resources. 

And finally, there’s the subtle rehabilitation of Enoch Powell; Nigel Farage agreed with excerpts of his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech when presented with some of it on Sky News. Hugo Rifkind of the Times wrote a blisteringly excellent column on this, and putting Powell’s speech in historical context and warning that “If Britain wants to debate immigration, the Rivers of Blood speech is emphatically not the place to start.”

I will go into this further in another blog post, but I think part of the resurgence of interest in what should be an entirely discredited speech is because along with the oft-repeated clarion call that critics of immigration have been silenced by the establishment thus far comes the accusation that this is because all too often, race and immigration have been linked. Well, we may be living in a brave, new world but the bad news is: Powell’s speech was racist then and it’s racist now. And while to be against immigration is not racist, the way in which this opposition is expressed sometimes is. That’s why having “Go Home” emblazoned on the side of vans last summer was never a polite suggestion but the co-opting of a nasty, racist far-right slogan that offended and wounded so many ethnic minorities.

And, yes, we may be talking chiefly about Romanians and Bulgarians at the moment, who are white, but the stereotyping and othering of the Roma people has historical roots and is – yes, I’m going to call it – racist.

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A conversation on framing and facts

These are the highlights of a conversation that I had on Twitter on policy framing in terms of immigration. Although I disagree with Sunny, he makes a good point in terms of people’s perceptions vs the facts. The question that keeps coming up is, do you challenge people’s misperceptions or do you try to match policy to populism – bearing in mind that public views are nuanced and the hardened opposition to immigration is unaffected by facts or actual immigration figures?

Personally, I would like to see politicians showing some leadership – but others feel that you need to address how people feel, regardless of the facts. What do you think? One thing I do know is that this tension will only get more intense as the elections (European and General elections) approach.


“A Labour government will clamp down on British businesses using cheap foreign labour, Ed Miliband will pledge today, as he gives a warning that the arrival of migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria could make the cost of living crisis worse for Britons.”

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The Silence that Screams its name

“Language matters. Witness the disturbing stereotyping of Roma people. But there are also dangers in silencing debate. Branding people as racist when they questioned the benefits of mass immigration crushed open debate very effectively until Gordon Brown derided Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman”. People listened to his sneering comments from the back of his limousine and something snapped.” – Sarah Woollaston

At some point, we’re constantly told, those with reservations about immigration were silenced. The jack boot of liberal oppression ground them into the dust, but they are now emerging blinking into the light of day, taking deep gulps of air and haltingly speaking The Truth, which has gone unspoken until very recently.

The Truth being, of course, that immigration is bad for British culture. The NHS. Housing. Social Cohesion. Etc. (It varies but the main thrust is that the economic data on migration is not enough – there is something intangible and British being lost.) I do agree that economic data is not the only thing to take into consideration, but as Kenan Malik points out, the social science on the effects of diversity and how people feel about it offers a snapshot in time. It’s also not the final word.

“The existential fear of immigration is almost as old as immigration itself. Had Arthur Balfour been able to read Goodhart’s account of the creation of an England ‘full of mysterious and unfamiliar worlds’, of an England that ‘is not English any more’, he would undoubtedly have nodded in agreement. Balfour was the Prime Minister in 1905 when Britain introduced its first immigration controls, aimed primarily at European Jews. Without such a law, Balfour claimed, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution… nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come.’ Two years earlier, the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration (an ‘alien’ was, in the early twentieth century, both a description of a foreigner and a euphemism for a Jew) had expressed fears that newcomers were inclined to live ‘according to their traditions, usages and customs’ and that there might be ‘grafted onto the English stock… the debilitated sickly and vicious products of Europe’.” – Kenan Malik

As far as I can see, those opposed to immigration have never been stopped from airing their views. But quite rightly, critics have drawn attention to the way in which those views are expressed, and the impact of a majority rounding on a minority, who are all too often stereotyped and miscast as the symbol for unrelated social ills. People are confusing criticism with silencing. Your view may be contested, but as far as I can see, when you have Blunkett on the BBC warning of race riots in Sheffield because of the Roma and Nick Clegg chiming in with the accusation that Roma culture can be offensive, I don’t think your problem is being heard. In fact, I don’t think the Roma community, maligned and stereotyped in the national press by politicians with a bully pulpit, can muster the same resources in response.

Undoubtedly, when the economy was good (granted, for some, not all) some voices were less audible – but I don’t think that was down to pro-immigration forces so much as poverty. The working classes were marginalised and in many ways continue to be. They were and are failed by a political elite who have found it quite useful to deflect criticism for not building houses, schools or hospitals, (even before the effects of  immigration are factored in) by capitalising on fear of the “other”. These are the same elites who would rather subsidise underemployment with tax credits and then demonise those who claim them rather than ensure that work pays and everyone earns a living wage. Not one conviction has been brought under minimum wage legislation since its inception. The dividing line is not between local and foreigner, but between rich and poor, a point made excellently by Zoe Williams in the Guardian:

“The same rhetoric that divides “migrants” from “citizens” also divides “citizens” and “taxpayers”, in a sort of child-parent dichotomy (the citizen has rights, the taxpayer pays for them).” – Zoe Williams

When it comes to politicians scrambling to leap on the anti-migrant bandwagon, silence is not the first word that springs to mind.

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