United we stand, divided we fall

by Filippo Osella

If there is a lesson to be learnt from the long 2016 it is that there is more than one way to disgrace oneself. Calling for a referendum out of miscalculated political arrogance (and committing political suicide along the way), lying shamelessly to the electorate to the point of engendering a novel post-truth politics, and, most importantly, disavowing political rhetoric of the capacity to persuade others of one’s political convictions.

In recent days a number of interventions trying to map out the direction of post-Brexit politics have sought to establish the necessity, if not inevitability of the introduction of legislation to control European Union citizens’ access to the UK labour market, and restrict even further statutory welfare provisions to EU immigrants. And there is much more to it in that speculations about the future shape of EU migration are deflecting attention from the implementation of measures directed to creating ‘a hostile environment’ for so-called illegal migrants, enlisting doctors and teachers in the Home Office’s efforts to track down and deport migrants for instance. Restrictive immigration rules for non-EU citizens have been piling up for some time—making family reunifications all but impossible, even in the case of children refugee with relatives in UK. Whilst EU immigrants are unlikely to be deported en-masse after a failed post-Brexit deal (try to visualize the headlines in the global media), non-EU ‘illegal’ migrants are discretely rounded up in detention centres and thrown out of the country almost on a daily basis. In the meantime, the Calais Jungle’s refugee children are still waiting for the extension of an increasingly improbable humanitarian act of compassion from the British government.

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What is striking about current discussions about EU immigration, then, is not the materialisation of a long-term, and verging on the paranoid fear about the country being taken over by underserving scroungers (and potential terrorists) who not only will put an unbearable strain on already scarce welfare resources—from housing and health, to education, and more—and destabilise the labour market by driving down wages, but will also trigger the social and cultural disintegration of local communities, if not the Nation as a whole. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognise here that the same narrative of fear which in the last thirty years has been unleashed with equal enthusiasm by successive Tory and Labour governments against single mothers, benefit cheats, the long-term unemployed, so-called ‘ethnic minorities,’ the ‘undeserving’ poor, organised labour, or the working class at large. So, more of the same insistent whisper insinuating that all would be good and fair in the Britain if it were not for the selfish or irresponsible actions of a few. Since the beginning of the Brexit referendum campaign, however, opinions or proposals which would be normally condemned as grossly repugnant—otherwise leading for calls to indict their proponents for apology of ethnic cleansing—have become legitimate currency in the public political debate. Should the right of residence of existing EU migrants be protected as a ‘moral duty,’ or should be bargained against degrees of access to the single market? How should EU migrants prove their possible right of residence, their bona-fide status as productive members of (UK) society? Should they have the same rights as EU citizens, or should they have to pay privately for health services and schooling? Would a ‘guest workers’ scheme for seasonal workers—modelled on the Qatar’s human rights-breaching labour immigration system—ensure a steady supply of cheap and docile immigrants to labour-intensive sectors of the economy such as agriculture?

Most troubling in midst of the current cacophony of plain xenophobic ranting—which we are quick to condemn as vile when it raises its head in other European countries—is the way it has become part of the political imagination of (significant sections of) the Labour Party and Trade Union movement. To be fair, even amongst the most unashamed Labour or trade unionist Brexiters no one so far has called for the mass deportation of EU migrants currently residing in UK. And yet, many, far too many, seem to agree with those who maintain that immigration is the problem, either for its social and economic consequences on native communities, or simply because the British public has turned against years of ‘open doors policy,’ and arguing otherwise would alienate voters. I have been in UK long enough—since 1980, to be precise—to know that it is not immigration that has produced an unbearable pressure on welfare provisions, but three decades of policies which have starved social services, schools, hospitals of appropriate funding and resources. The progressive shrinking of state and services has gone alongside the utter devastation of industrial production, the commoditization of services and utilities, and a progressive unbridled financialisation of the economy whose outcomes became all too evident in 2008. What might appear as a zero-sum game in which UK citizens have to compete against migrants for scarce welfare resources is squarely a political rather than economic issue, engendered by strategies and policies peddled over the years with a degree of continuity by Tory and Labour governments alike. The Thatcherite demonisation of the dole-claiming unemployed was matched years later by Gordon Brown and Tony Blair’s rantings against the ‘undeserving poor’ and benefit cheats. And yes, since 1980 I have seen the devastation of once proud and thriving working class communities—in the North of England and Midlands, as much as in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—the tragic outcome of sudden and unbridled de-industrialization, not immigration. The depression of wages and casualisation of labour has little to do with immigrants, but a lot with extensive unemployment, economic liberalisation and years of attacks on organized labour. The anti-union legislation introduce by the Thatcher government in the wake of the miners’ strike were never repelled by the Labour governments which followed.

Blaming it all on immigrants (EU and non-EU; refugees and so-called ‘economic migrants’) is disingenuous to say the least, a rough and ready means to evade the political responsibility of taking stock of the unsavoury outcomes of three decades of stubborn enamourment with market forces and economic liberalisation. But there is more to the current immigration panic-fear, in that it breeds on a dangerously facile understanding of belonging to the nation, of what it takes to be or feel British. Jus sanguinis might confer formal citizenship, and yet we know that racial hierarchies inflect Britishness in complex, if not predictable ways, to the point that so-called ethnic and religious minorities have to demonstrate periodically their allegiance to the nation—most recently with the proposal of a British values oath. Other citizens too seem to fall beyond the edges of Britishness, all those who are routinely suspected of free-loading on the (nowadays somewhat meagre) provisions of the welfare state, and hence are required to submit themselves to demeaning assessments of their social needs—the disabled, the unemployed, single parents, and more. Citizenship, then, becomes a movable feast, entailing and reproducing racial and social hierarchies. And yet, there are multiple means to acquire and claim a sense of belonging to the nation and its communities: through work and employment, political participation and solidarity, everyday instances of conviviality, neighbourly amity and friendship. And it is in everyday sociality that xenophobic nationalism can and does break down. You might dislike or fear ‘immigrants’ as a collective and anonymous category of strangers, and yet you banter daily with a Polish work colleague, confide outside school with the Romanian mother of your daughter’s friend, exchange Christmas greetings and recipes with your Spanish neighbour. It is in the everyday that we find Britishness, that sense of tolerance, curiosity, non-conformism, and pleasure in all that is outside of the ordinary which has allowed countless people like me to call UK ‘home,’ to participate to the making of Britishness. Permanent residence, if not citizenship, is the right, then, of those who have made Britain their home, regardless of their nationality.

It is thus simple political laziness and pusillanimity which leads politicians to argue that immigration must be controlled or dealt with because the British public has had enough of foreigners in their midst. Instead of peddling xenophobic nationalism, politicians should take heed and draw inspiration from the countless everyday instances of amity, solidarity, and compassion through which British and non-British citizens interact with each other, and develop a sense of belonging together. After all, political rhetoric—the bread and butter of the art of political persuasion—not only shapes political practice, but also should seek to generate debate and form public opinion. A politics which either naively or disingenuously assuages public sentiments—real or imagined as they might be—in the name of political pragmatism or electoral calculation bankrupts democracy and short-changes citizens. Current political debates about post-Brexit Britain, the so-called refugee crisis, or immigration at large naturalise xenophobia and racism as an atavistic (and hence legitimate) popular defensive stance against the encroachment of ‘strangers’ on one’s community and life. In so doing they hide the all too blatant reality that the apparent guerra dei poveri (war/competition amongst the poor) over scarce welfare resources, jobs, housing and more is the outcome of neoliberal ideologies and the policies they have spawned.

Finally, a word of advice for Len McCluskey, the general secretary of UNITE who has repeated once more his call for curbs on the free movement of people from the EU. Since arriving in UK in 1980 I participated actively in progressive politics, campaigning against the Thatcher government, supporting the miners’ strike, fighting the poll tax and, later, student fees, and more. I have been a trade union member since 1982, first in the TGWU and then in the UCU. And like me, countless ‘foreigners’ have been and are part of the trade union movement, none of us has ever been asked our nationality before joining the unions or the picket line. Len McCluskey, trade unions belong to their members, non-British workers like me included, so don’t assume your narrow-minded political expediencies represent our lives and views. United we stand, divided we fall, remember?


Filippo Osella is Professor of Anthropology and South Asian Studies at the University of Sussex.


Cover image: Brexit Protest 12 by Garon S @ flickr.

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