Shortages of workers caused by Britain’s departure from the European Union have led the Conservatives to shift from the perceived impact of immigration—at a time when the case for more immigration is incredibly strong—to instead concentrate on ‘borders’. Of course, this is a longstanding device of the British right—as an island nation, the concept of defending ourselves from the spectre of unknown invaders is an easy political provocation to make.
This is why the Tories are pushing through their Nationality and Borders Bill, which is being voted on in the House of Commons this evening. The Bill, which has already been condemned by the United Nations, is not just a pernicious attempt to criminalise the very act of seeking asylum: it is an exercise in framing around the image of Nigel Farage patrolling white cliffs armed with a pair of binoculars.
The counterpart to the post-Brexit narrative on asylum—moving from the division of ‘genuine’ and ‘bogus’ refugees to considering refugees to Britain as bogus because they passed up on opportunities to claim asylum elsewhere in Europe—is that immigration is now related to nationality and citizenship.
This recalibrates immigration from being about earned citizenship through social integration, mastery of English, and learning a version of British history to an insecure subjecthood the state can arbitrarily withdraw—not only in response to committing a crime but also by falling foul of the nebulously defined concept of being ‘not conducive to the public good.’
There are many reasons to distrust government discretion on citizenship. Not least the Windrush scandal, which broke an unofficial understanding between Caribbean immigrants and the British state that the right to remain for Commonwealth immigrants who entered before 1973 meant they were accepted as British in all but name.
Some on the right argue that Windrush was an unintended by-product of hostile environment policies, but it was more than that. It was a reneging on an understanding and a breach of trust. This is why the figure of six million people potentially being affected matters so much. Not because Priti Patel will actually withdraw citizenship from them, but because the fear and insecurity that stems from that mistrust is palpable.
Britishness has always been about more than the colour of a passport. It is about acceptance and belonging, or lack of it. If the Nationality and Borders Bill is about delivering a Brexit dividend for Leave voters, it also incites racists to assert that non-white people are not British, however British they may be. We saw this in the hate crime spike after Brexit, when black and Asian people began receiving abusive terms not heard since the 1970s. In this sense, the Bill strikes at the heart of who we are as a nation: who is British, and who is an outsider?
The new powers Patel wants—to withdraw citizenship from dual nationality citizens on a whim and not automatically grant citizens the right to appeal or challenge the decision in court—should worry all of us, because it is a power that could, in future, be extended to all of us. There is a thin line between foreigners being made ‘citizens of nowhere’ and actual citizens having their commitment to Britain being questioned or labelled as traitors.
And just as use of the word ‘borders’ is a deliberate attempt to frame the asylum debate around the perceived threat from ‘invading aliens’, discussion over ‘nationality’ frames citizenship around conditionality rather than its legal concept, which is about fundamental rights.
Nationality, borders, greater police repression, and voter ID checks have cleverly divided the Left’s campaigning focus, but they all share one thing—these proposed laws all have profound civil liberties implications. There have often been parallels between the struggle for British rights and immigration. Since 1980, successive governments have introduced seven regressive anti-trade union laws and sixteen laws restricting immigration or nationality—with the most active period being under Tony Blair. Each law has been harsher than the previous one, and collectively they reinforce the state’s message about who they think the enemy is.
All this regressive legislation contrasts starkly with how few pro-equality laws are on the statute book by comparison. This is important because politicians who talk of ‘rights and responsibilities’ for citizens ignore their own when it comes to addressing the negative consequences of anti-asylum and immigration laws.
Indeed, the political rhetoric and street-level racism can bind themselves in a self-reinforcing spiral. The ‘race riots’ in Middlesbrough, Nottingham, and Notting Hill preceded the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962. The laws did not pacify racists but fed resentment that led to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Each Act has emboldened the far-right to push for more, moving the dial of what is considered ‘mainstream’ evermore away from human decency.
That process appears to be accelerating. Wendy Williams’ ‘Lessons Learned’ review of the Windrush scandal called for humanity to be at the heart of immigration policy. Instead, the proposed Bill casts asylum seekers as illegal for travelling without permission. We have had a year of deportations (including three charter flights to Jamaica), stories about plans to use sonic booms against dinghies full of desperate people, and offshore detention centres in Ghana, Rwanda, and elsewhere. It’s almost as if the government is trolling Williams.
What should the progressive response be? Keir Starmer mostly shies from discussing policy. But on the interlocking topics of immigration, citizenship, and race equality, we are crying out for a vision that ties them together and sets out how Labour wants Britain to see itself. It is time to end the cross-party consensus that race and immigration policy are separate. Standing up for multiculturalism and embracing newcomers as social equals is a foundation upon which transformative policies for economic redistribution can be built.
The vision of a welcoming nation at ease with itself, revelling in its diversity rather than ‘tolerating’ it, is a potentially exciting picture to paint long before the next election. Happiness towards ‘diversity’ and inclusive well-being is connected to the public appetite for tackling structural racism. And an atmosphere of helping rather than demonising others is fundamental to selling a programme of change within borders, rather than a right-wing agenda that obsesses about borders or pushing for divisive and counterproductive ‘open borders’.
Immigration and asylum are cultural issues—it was ever thus—and the arguments must be fought on these grounds. It will be a hard fight; the ongoing culture war is proof of that. But retreating from the battlefield would be as cowardly as Neil Kinnock was in slinking away in the face of Margaret Thatcher’s talk of Britain being ‘swamped’. In the face of cynical framing around the Bill, there is a need for a counter-narrative that holds up examples of where multiculturalism works and the human stories that encapsulate a healthy society where embracing immigration coincides with consensus-building around other progressive ideals.
Arguments for the right of refugees to move, or why we should care about addressing racial disparities, are not a million miles away from narrative building to make the 1% the bad guy. The working class has a common interest in diversity and equality—but painting a picture about how this might feel is crucial to creating excitement and curiosity about the vision. This should be the task of our movement.