I have a bad memory. So, true to my bad recall, I don’t know exactly who said it or exactly why, but I do clearly remember that it was said: ‘That’s because you’re not from here.’ Legs splayed either side of me, sitting on the warm playground tarmac of the first school I went to in a leafy suburb of Newcastle, one of my friends had turned to me, casually made this comment and moved on without skipping a beat. In a haze of poorly remembered exchanges and recollections pieced together from other peoples’ stories, this is one of those defining encounters that we all have from childhood, and it’s remained firmly lodged in my mind.
I had citizenship and all of the many privileges that came with it. But my mum was brown and she was an immigrant, or at least she’d have been seen as an immigrant by most, even though she came to the UK with a British passport from a country that was once considered the jewel in the crown of the Empire. And, so, I was ‘mixed race’ and the child of an immigrant. My mum wasn’t ‘from here’; neither was I. It’s unlikely my classmate came to this conclusion on their own, they probably learned it subconsciously from an adult in their life who had noted our difference and used it to define us.
Low wages or overcrowded public services couldn’t entirely explain this throwaway comment. Written into these words was something else altogether.
When people say that the reason they don’t like immigration isn’t just about or even because of economics, they’re being honest. There’s little evidence, academics Jens Hainmueller and Daniel J. Hopkins claim, that attitudes on immigration are heavily related to ‘personal economic circumstances’. Whether it’s largely about economics, culture or a mix of the two, it’s ‘symbolic concerns’ about the nation that matter most.1 For some people, it’s predominantly or exclusively worries about the economy or overpopulation that drive their feelings on immigration, but for others there’s something else in the mix: ‘culture’. This is what the phrase ‘legitimate concerns’ covers too. But how can we understand the relationship between immigration and anxieties over cultural change?
This question rarely gets considered because it’s assumed that cultural anxiety is normal and natural, that the way to deal with it is to reduce immigration, and that there are two things in particular that it’s indisputably not about: race and prejudice.
‘There is nothing innately left wing about supporting uncontrolled immigration. In fact, properly managing migration will help build an open and anti-racist society and mean Britain is better able to provide asylum to those in need,’ writes the Fabians’ deputy general secretary in a post-EU referendum pamphlet that mentioned immigration around eighty times in the space of twenty-nine pages. ‘The left must also stop conflating concerns about immigration with racism. While it is vital to challenge the language of hate from UKIP and others, the majority of people who worry about immigration are not intolerant.’2 It is almost as if the last couple of decades of politics hadn’t happened at all.
The New Right had no formal ties to the Conservative Party, but they were hardly a fringe group. Their aim was to influence society, and in the 1970s and ’80s they gave an intellectual polish to Thatcherism. A disparate coterie of right-wing academics, journalists, writers and politicians, they weren’t a strictly unified organisation and they didn’t have one cohesive way of understanding the world. But, aside from their fierce belief in the ‘free market’, what united many of them was a social authoritarianism that fixated on the state of the nation. They attacked multiculturalism as disruptive,3 anti-racism as divisive and argued it was only natural to think that society needed to be protected from ‘too many’ migrants coming into the country.
New Right proponents thrashed out their ideas in the Salisbury Review, a quarterly magazine of conservative thought which began in 1982 and which was edited by the philosopher Roger Scruton. And in some of the country’s biggest newspapers – the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express – leading New Right academics also used opinion columns to air their views.4
Bold and unashamed, in these spaces, the New Right rejected the suggestion that their views on immigration were racist. When asked about racism, Enoch Powell, one of the earliest people to express the politics that would become central to New Right thinking,5 argued ‘if . . . you mean a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believed that one race is inherently superior to another in civilisation or capability of civilisation, then the answer is emphatically no.’6
Rejecting that people of different races were biologically different or inferior to white people, the problem with immigration and a multicultural society, the New Right said, was cultural difference. An interconnected society was less about social and economic equality and more about the values and traditions people held.7 On these grounds, people of colour and certain groups of migrants were considered a threat to national cohesion; the nation was weak and in decline because of them. Academics who dissected this thinking called it ‘the new racism’.8
The crux of the New Right argument was, as one of their critics put it, that ‘it is in our biology, our instincts, to defend our way of life, traditions and customs against outsiders – not because they are inferior, but because they are part of different cultures.’9 People’s supposedly insurmountable and natural thresholds for difference, they implied, should be respected, otherwise immigration and increasing racial diversity would inevitably lead to racism. So, by the New Right’s rationale, the only way to avoid racism was to believe this racist logic and act on it.
By the mid-1990s, the New Right had been sidelined; anti-racist activists had forced positive reforms in the UK, in doing so, changing some of the contours of the debate about immigration. But these ideas about ‘difference’ and otherness, nurtured and disseminated by the New Right, still thrive in contemporary Britain, as people coming from different political traditions advocate for similar ideas. Journalist and commentator David Goodhart is one of those people.
A self-described former liberal, he presents himself as a ‘straight-talker’ who is willing to challenge the left when, as he claims, it ignores peoples’ concerns about ‘mass immigration’ and the assumed threat it poses to social democracy and the welfare state. On TV, and in the pages of magazines, newspapers and two books, he’s argued that when there are too many new immigrants coming in the UK, the country’s bonds of solidarity are weakened because more diversity erodes common culture and undermines what’s needed for a cohesive society and welfare state. Even though, immigrants have made and continue to make possible that very welfare state. What exactly ‘culture’ is and which ‘cultures’ are similar is never really defined; referencing American academic Robert Putnam, Goodhart argues that ‘absorbing 100,000 Australians is very different to 100,000 Afghans’. The distinctions between the more and the less compatible don’t always neatly map onto racial categories, and yet, in a move reminiscent of the New Right, Goodhart has been known to blur the lines between immigration and race by putting statistics about people of colour and people born abroad ‘side by side’.10
Academic Matthew Goodwin seems to have given intellectual gloss to similar arguments, namely that ‘people have strong and entrenched fears about the perceived destruction of national cultures, ways of life and values, amid unprecedented and rapid rates of immigration and ethnic change’. By not situating them in a broader political, social and historical context, this kind of analysis gives the impression that all such fears are natural and inevitable. This thinking has subtly nestled into the mainstream in different but often complementary ways.11
Littered across newspapers and TV documentaries is the belief that immigration brings with it too much cultural change. Parts of the left have too readily accepted this vision of the world. One national columnist trying to make sense of anti-immigration views expressed by people up and down the country declared that ‘millions of people will always be uneasy about large-scale change. Not because they are racist, or anymore prejudiced than anyone else – but because human beings like a measure of certainty and stability.’12 This doesn’t amount to suggesting that diversity is inherently problematic – the columnist pinpointed a variety of sources for public anxiety and argued immigration is not bad for the economy – but the article didn’t engage with how race might be a factor in the debate. Stopped dead in its tracks is the potential for broader discussion about why people might dislike immigration.
In January 2017, Labour MP Caroline Flint gave us a glimpse of another meaning the loaded term ‘culture’ can carry with it when it’s used in the context of the immigration debate. Is it fair to say that New Labour ignoring concerns about immigration in the 2000s was not only a mistake ‘economically but culturally too?’ BBC Newsnight’s Kirsty Wark asked Flint. ‘I think it’s not just about economics,’ Flint replied, ‘it’s about the social atmosphere as well. In Doncaster, for example, Don Valley, in my own constituency, back in ’97, it was 99.5 per cent white. In the last few years, “non- British” has gone up to 5 per cent. That may not seem much to places like Leicester, but that’s a big change in small-town village communities.’
In this statement, ‘race’ and ‘culture’ collapsed into one another as ‘white’ and ‘British’ seemed to become synonymous. Barely anyone registered the slip, but maybe that’s because we’re so used to hearing it.
BBC Panorama’s 2017 ‘Life in Immigration Town’ was a thirty-minute documentary, following up from a piece made ten years earlier, which looked at changing demographics in Slough. It was billed as seeking to answer the question, ‘What happens when a community is changed by immigration?’ They zeroed in on one particular statistic: white Brits comprised 34.5 per cent of the population, meaning that ‘for the first time in Slough’ they were ‘a minority’. Similarly, producers of Channel 4’s Immigration Street claimed they chose to film on Derby Road because ‘at the last census 17 per cent of residents described themselves as “White British” against a national average of 86 per cent.’ Is it ‘that only white people are British and everyone else is an immigrant?’ TV reviewer Ellen E. Jones asked.13
Programmes like these are spun as if earnest presenters are embarking on a neutral sociological exploration of immigration to hear ‘ordinary’ people’s ‘concerns’ about immigration. But their very premise sets the tone from the beginning: immigration has diluted the number of white Britons in a given area, which in itself is an issue that deserves special attention.
Documentaries about historically black areas being gentrified by ‘white Brits’ must surely be in the pipeline.
This particular comparator conjures up the image of white British society being changed by people of colour and immigrants who don’t naturally belong in these areas – in the same way the New Right claimed. Here we can also see the messiness of what people might mean when they talk about immigration; referring to people from within the EU as well as outside it, including people of colour, no matter if they were born in the UK.
What can lie behind complaints about immigration was neatly captured by Charles Moore, former editor of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator in a column called ‘Time for a more liberal and “racist” immigration policy’: ‘Britain is basically English-speaking, Christian and white, and if one starts to think it might become basically Urdu-speaking [sic] and Muslim and brown, one gets frightened and angry.’14
Beyond the fringes of the New Right, the distinction between race and immigration has long been blurred by politicians who have argued that, to preserve British identity and reduce racism, immigration needs to be ‘controlled’. In 1967 Conservative Duncan Sandys declared, ‘We are determined to preserve the British character of Britain, we welcome other races in reasonable numbers, but we have already admitted more than we can absorb.’ And Margaret Thatcher said, ‘If you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers.’ Nearly fifty years later, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock made a strikingly similar argument: ‘Nobody is born racist, but immigration that reaches levels beyond a society’s capacity to cope can lead, in extremes, to racism.’15
Reminiscent of some of the response to racist violence in London’s Notting Hill in 1958 and the murder of Kelso Cochrane a year later, at its most basic expression, the rationale of today’s politics remains that the numbers of certain migrants coming into a country determines whether there will be a xenophobic or racist response. Once again, a negative reaction to ‘too much’ change is assumed to be a natural one, and the solution prescribed is to have fewer of ‘those’ migrants.
But anti-immigration sentiment isn’t inevitable, and immigration controls haven’t reduced prejudice; racism isn’t a mistake or a consequence of demographic change; it is a product of history.16 Racism is only possible because of the category ‘race’, which is not a given or a natural way of organising society but was and is created and given meaning by people. Racisms are always changing – but they remain present in the way immigration is talked about and legislated for.
Satvir Kaur is a councillor in Southampton who was heavily involved in the local protests against the television programme Immigration Street being made on a street in the city. ‘A lot of people in this area are not new immigrants, they’re second, third generation, and we felt as though we were being targeted because we were a different religion and a different colour and ate different food and worshipped at a different place,’ she says when she explains why residents protested. ‘I think that was most upsetting for people. It raises the question: at what point do you stop being considered an immigrant and at what point do you start being classed as British?’
- Combining in-depth interviews and considered historical analysis, Maya Goodfellow's Hostile Environment illuminates the past and present of anti-migrant politics in the UK. Out now.
Through interviews with leading policy-makers, asylum seekers, and immigration lawyers, Goodfellow illuminates the dark underbelly of contemporary immigration policies. A nuanced analysis of the UK’s immigration policy from the 1960s onwards, Hostile Environment links immigration policy and the rhetoric of both Labour and Tory governments to the UK’s colonial past and its imperialist present. Goodfellow shows that distinct forms of racism and dehumanisation directly resulted from immigration policy, and reminds us of the human cost of concessions to anti-immigration politics.
1. Jens Hainmueller and Daniel J. Hopkins, ‘Public Attitudes Toward Immigration’, Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 17, pp. 225–49.
2. Olivia Bailey, ‘Introduction: Facing the Unknown’, in Facing the Unknown: Building a Progressive Response to Brexit, ed. by Olivia Bailey, London: FEPS-Europe and Fabian Society, 2016, p. 23.
3. In its most helpful form, multiculturalism is a challenge to the notion that there ever was or should be a racially homogenous white nation. Its basic premise is that diverse groups of people can form a common present and future, and in fact, people are already living the reality of a multicultural and multiracial UK on a daily basis. But through state-led attempts under Thatcher and then New Labour, multiculturalism became an institutional tool to strip anti-racism of its radical edges and try to bring some of the people agitating for change on the streets into the structures of government. It broke down ethnic groups into separate ‘cultural blocks’ and treated willing individuals as if they were spokes- people for a whole, supposedly unified, community. Focused on ‘ethnic’ and ‘cultural’ projects, it did little to deal with racial inequalities in jobs, housing and wider society; anti-racism became about representation not material changes. But the major shortcomings of these incarnations of multi-culturalism aside, the New Right railed against the very notion of a multicultural, multiracial society, considering it detrimental to national cohesion, an idea revived by people like David Cameron when he was prime minister, and that anti-racism was damaging British society. In the mid-1980s, it seems the New Right’s cause du jour was making sure that as many people as possible heard their seething criticism of anti-racism. Through newspapers columns they claimed that people of colour resisting and challenging racism were threatening ‘British culture’. In 1984–85, when the left-wing-controlled Greater London Council had an ‘anti-racist year’, there were reams of articles criticising it from New Right figures.
4. Francesca Klug and Paul Gordon, New Right New Racism, London: Searchlight Productions, 1986, p. 7.
5. Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and Racialized Outsider, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 117.
6. Cited in Francesca Klug and Paul Gordon, New Right New Racism, p. 20.
7. Liz Fekete, Europe’s Fault Lines: Racism and the Rise of the Right, London: Verso, 2018, p. 32.
8. Martin Barker, The New Racism: Conservative and the Ideology of the Tribe, London: Junction Books, 1981, pp. 23–4; also see Etienne Balibar, ‘Is There a “Neo-Racism”?’, in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, ed. by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, translation by Chris Turner, London: Verso, 1988, pp. 17–28. The uncoupling of race and culture wasn’t and isn’t unique to the UK. In 1987, Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the fascistic, anti-migrant Front National, declared: ‘I love North Africans, but their place is in the Maghreb . . . I am not a racist, but a national . . . For a nation to be harmonious, it must have a certain ethnic and spiritual homogeneity.’ Cited in Maxim Silverman, Deconstructing the Nation: Immigration, Racism and Citizenship in Modern France, London and New York: Routledge, 2003 (1992), p. 167.
9. Martin Barker, The New Racism, pp. 23–4.
10. David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, London: Hurst & Company, 2017, p. 22; David Goodhart, ‘Why I Left my Liberal London Tribe’, Financial Times, 16 March 2017; David Goodhart, The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration, London: Atlantic Books, 2013, p. 112. With regards to the argument that there is a blurring of race and immigration, see K. Biswas, ‘Notoriously Clannish’, Times Literary Supplement, 16 August 2013. Also see Ben Rogaly, ‘Brexit Writings and the War of Position Over Migration, “Race” and “Class”’, Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, vol. 37, issue 1, pp. 26–38.
11. Matthew Goodwin, ‘National Populism Is Unstoppable – and the Left Still Doesn’t Understand it’, Guardian, 8 November 2018.
12. John Harris, ‘It’s Not Racist to Be Anxious Over Large-Scale Immigration’, Guardian, 23 December 2013.
13. I watched the original of the Wark–Flint interviews. For the transcript, see Dan Hancox, 11 January 2017, available at twitter.com/danhancox/status/819225721184030725, last accessed 20 June 2019; Panorama, ‘Life in Immigration Town’, BBC, 2017; Immigration Street, London: Love Production, 2015; Ellen E. Jones, ‘Immigration Street, Review: There Is Such a Thing as Society – Just as the Residents of Derby Road, Southampton’, Independent, 25 February 2015.
14. Charles Moore, ‘Time for a More Liberal and “Racist” Immigration Policy’, Spectator, 19 October 1991, p. 7.
15. The Conservative Conference 1967: The Guardian Report, Manchester: Manchester Guardian, 1967, p. 34; cited in Jonathan Aitken, Margaret Thatcher: Power and Personality, London: Bloomsbury, p. 200; Stephen Kinnock, ‘My Cure for a Divided Britain? A Programme of Managed Immigration’, Guardian, 19 September 2016.
16. Omar Khan and Nissa Finney, Unnamed Letter to Louise Casey, London: Runnymede Trust, 22 January 2016.