The following piece is a condensed version of the final episode of our podcast series on racism. Make sure you check out the series if you haven’t yet!
Governments throughout the western world have convinced their populations that the greatest threat to their nations isn’t government tyranny or inequality or even climate change – no, apparently it’s immigration. I feel that immigration scares some people because it represents change, which always creates a sense of apprehension; a fear of the unknown.
Before delving into the hostility shown towards immigrants in the UK and beyond, I want to first pose this question: what is British culture? Is it getting unnecessarily pissed? Probably yes, after our nationwide push to reopen pubs so hastily! Is it fish and chips? Interestingly, Tommy Robinson, the unapologetic bigot, said that British culture was going for a curry on a Friday night? Clearly he loves a curry, yet he shows open disdain for Asian people? Maybe cultural appropriation is British culture? It’s a useful question to reflect upon.
I want to link this to overt nationalism that is rife in the UK at present. Nationalism, as a tool, is used to galvanise the masses, supposedly uniting citizens under a common belief. The form of nationalism we witness most often today is people blindly following and believing we’re the best country for no other reason than being born here. This ideology intrinsically links with hostility towards immigrants. Our notion of what it means to be nationalist needs to be altered. You can support your country and want better for it, like I do, because that’s being a nationalist right? Wanting your nation to strive for more. This is far more beneficial than believing we’re the best for no reason.
The intrinsic link with Brexit
Obviously, issues surrounding immigration are entangled with Brexit. We need to be honest with ourselves here, the decision to leave the EU was a partly racist decision – a tiny minority will have voted based on it being beneficial to their small firm yes, but it was ultimately about disliking certain groups of foreigners. The UKIP leader Nigel Farage quite literally used a billboard displaying Syrian migrants to persuade people to vote out of the EU.
During the Brexit-referendum campaign in 2016, many Brexiteers argued that leaving the European Union was the only way for Britain to regain control of its borders. And this fear of migrants, principally, led the British to vote for Brexit. A YouGov poll in the days before Brexit found that 56% of Britons named “immigration and asylum” as the biggest issue facing the country.
As discussed in episode 3 of our podcast series, this is compounded by the media in the UK. Tabloids regularly have acerbic headlines such as “Migrants Rob Young Britons of Jobs” and “Britain’s 40% Surge in Ethnic Numbers”, stoking the fear of outsiders. From 2010 to 2016, the Daily Express ran 179 front-page anti-immigration stories and the Daily Mail 122 similar front-page tirades.
This is modern-age populism, creating a false narrative about the ‘other’. The fear of migrants is magnified by lies about their numbers; politicians and racists train minds to think of them as a ‘horde’. For me personally, this word connotes the orc army in the Lord of the Rings, a hostile, invading force, and has been used deliberately.
In many rich countries, people – especially those who are poorly educated or right-wingers – think immigrants are a much bigger share of the population than they actually are, and think that they get much more government aid than they really do. A recent study found that Americans, as an overall average, think that foreign-born people make up around 37% of the population; in reality, they are only 13.7%. British respondents to the poll predicted that 22% of people will be Muslim by 2022; the actual projection is 6%.
Studies on Immigration
Now I want to talk about an especially noteworthy Bank of England study, one of many carried out on immigration. The data provided suggests that most immigrants are employed, contradicting the somewhat popular belief that many immigrants are jobless and live off welfare. Importantly, immigrants to the United Kingdom (regardless of how long they have been in the country) are over-represented in both high-paid occupations (Managers and Professionals) and low-paid occupations (Elementary). Immigrants also tend to be younger, better educated and work longer hours than those born in the UK. It appears that ‘new’ immigrants (those who entered the United Kingdom up to two years ago) are more educated than both previous waves of immigrants )and those born in the UK), but they are more likely to be working in Elementary occupations.
Another study, carried out by the migration observatory at Oxford University, supplements the above research. They found that views on immigration are deeply divided in Britain: in 2019 around 39% thought that the level of immigration should stay about the same, while 44% said they would like immigration to be reduced.
The finding of particular significance is that British people make clear distinctions between types of migrant, with the highly skilled preferred to the unskilled, and those from some countries (such as Australia) preferred over those from others (such as Nigeria). However, there is a stark difference between Leave and Remain voters. Taking Pakistani immigration as an example, 45% of Remainers would allow ‘some’ or ‘many’ to come and live in the UK, compared to just 15% of Leavers. The difference is smaller for Australians, where the majority of Leavers would allow some or many to come and live in the UK.
Why is this then? Do we believe Australians are more skilled? More civilised? More likely to ‘assimilate’ to our society? You see, I have never understood what this latter phrase means. It suggests there is a common shared behaviour in British society, whereas in reality it is quite the opposite. Have a think about the regional differences in the UK, the culture apparent in different urban dwellings. This is best illustrated by the well-known ‘North/South divide’ – yes it mainly refers to the contrasting economic positions of the two regions, but also the social and cultural differences as well.
Racism towards immigrants is deployed by elites to divide and rule and there is an inherent classism involved. I am not overly fond of the term working-class myself, but in this context it’s important – people in this broad grouping have a lot in common, but the media, especially the tabloids like the Sun, try to create a ‘white working class’ and pit this group against immigrants.
The anti-immigrant agenda that is pedalled by these powerful organisations and individuals is a smokescreen for deeper issues, such as widening inequality in this country and the affects austerity has on well-being. Austerity policies have lessened the quality of life for many people in the UK, yet the blame is seemingly placed on immigrants instead, “coming over here and taking our jobs”. A phrase I have started to deploy rather frequently is that the tabloids are weapons of mass distraction. I’ll let you use that one in your next debate.
What can we do to turn the tide?
I think we need to understand why people come from far and wide to our country, often risking death. In recent times, this is because we have literally bombed their home and gone to war with them; in colonial times, we destroyed everything they had, whilst telling them that Britain was the best country in the world. No wonder they want to see it for themselves.
Nationalism is a potent force all over the world, with close ties to increasingly anti-immigrant sentiment. It’s effective because there’s a lot of anger in the nation that festers under the surface; a lot of people are unhappy with their own lives. We must strive to rework patriotic sentiment into wanting our nation to be better, always striving to improve its citizens’ lives and being accepting of others.