Last Monday, Diane Abbott wrote a misguided letter to the Guardian, distinguishing between the ‘prejudice’ some groups face and the ‘racism’ experienced by others. Her attempt to establish some hierarchy of racism was ignorant and facile. She managed to dismiss both the insidious, invidious racism experienced by some groups and the patent, brutal nature of racism experienced by other groups. (To say nothing of the fact that many groups subject to racist abuse experience both.)
The consequences were swift, and rightly so. Starmer suspended the whip from Abbott, pending an investigation, leaving her sitting on the backbenches with the six other former members of her party. Attempts by members of the left to silo forms of racism and prejudice into distinct categories as though they should be eliminated by order of priority on the path to racial justice are absurd and bigoted. Overcoming racism is not a game of sequential whack-a-mole. Racism experienced by black people is not on some level ‘worse’ or less justifiable than that experienced by groups like Jews or Travellers. All that Abbott and those who support a philosophy that hierarchises oppression succeed in doing is being guilty of the prejudice they ineptly condemn.
But whatever racism blights the Labour Party pales in comparison to what is happening in the actual government. While Labour are infighting about which racism is worse, Conservative ministers are crafting and delivering the successor to Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech to barely a raised eyebrow. On Wednesday, Robert Jenrick, the Minister of State for Immigration, delivered a speech on how the “nation has a right to preserve itself”, and how “uncontrolled migration” has “damaging effects on social trust and cohesion”. The speech was rife with inflammatory rhetoric on how migration “cannibalise[s] the compassion of the British public”, and how those crossing have “completely different lifestyles and values” to those in the UK.
Much of Jenrick’s language is almost indistinguishable from that used by Powell half a century ago. Powell spoke about a woman who was ‘awakened at seven am by two Negroes who wanted to use her phone’, while Jenrick spoke of ‘illegal migrants who have made clandestine landings…knocking on [residents’] doors.’ These are immigrants who, according to Jenrick, cannot be ‘provide[d] for or integrate[d] successfully into our national community.’ Their values are simply incompatible. Powell thought much the same. He claimed that the growing Sikh community in Britain would “lead to a dangerous fragmentation within society”, and that the “immigrant communities” would try to “overawe and dominate” native citizens.
Jenrick may only be a junior minister in the Home Office, but he and his senior minister, Suella Braverman, speak with one voice. Asked during an interview round about Jenrick’s speech, the Home Secretary said that illegal immigrants have “values which are at odds with our country”, and that there is “heightened criminality” among groups crossing the Channel. She tautologically went on to clarify her comments on criminality, saying that crossing the Channel unlawfully was, ipso facto, evidence of a criminal disposition.
Even if you discount such sheer stupidity, the Home Secretary is still unable to explain how genuine asylum seekers are supposed to seek asylum here. In an interview given after Jenrick’s speech, she said that there was “no good reason” for Sudanese refugees to cross the Channel in small boats, and that they should contact the UNHCR as the “right mechanism” for seeking asylum. She hadn’t bothered to tell the UNHCR. Her statement forced the UNHCR to clarify there was no way to claim asylum in the UK from its outposts in Sudan. Indeed, they seemed to have a better grasp of the reality of the UK’s asylum policy, going on to note in their statement that the “overwhelming majority” of refugees have no safe and legal route to the UK.
Admittedly, unlike Powell, both Braverman and Jenrick attempt to clothe their bigotry with diaphanous morality, with Jenrick going to some effort to include ameliorative sympathies in his speech. He nodded towards diversity, noting how the UK’s “multi-ethnic democracy [is] successful” and bemoaned the fact that the Channel crossings put “women, children and the most vulnerable…at risk”. But he went on from there to assert that ‘in order for nation states to survive…governments must recognise the necessity of limits’. In 1968, Powell spoke about ‘stopping, or virtually stopping, further inflow [of migrants] and by promoting the maximum outflow’. Today, Jenrick emphasises how “deterrence must be restored”. There must be “swift and predictable removal”. People who enter illegally must be “denie[d]…a life in the UK”. Ministers’ language today may be subtly different, but the intention is little-changed.
That this speech has raised few eyebrows shows how effective the government’s rhetorical mission creep has been. Asylum seekers have been so successfully demonised that even as war breaks out in Sudan and continues in Ukraine, with asylum ever more vital, ministers can bemoan how the Channel is no longer a “barrier more impenetrable than any wall”, and how immigrants are violating the sanctity of the UK’s “silver sea”, while the press and the country just nods along. The fact that deaths are rising in the Channel and in immigration centres, that it is the norm for detention centres to be overcrowded and inhumane, and that the Home Office has lost over 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children is ignored. Instead, the country pats itself on the back after it reads about the UK topping an international league table as a country accepting of immigration.
There is not any legitimate need for the government to obsess over illegal migration. Despite what the Home Office’s panicked twitter feed might suggest, we are not in the middle of a migration crisis. Nor is the country facing unprecedented numbers of claims for asylum – compared to other European countries, the applications are below average. Rather than crafting convoluted and unworkable schemes like Rwanda, and drafting grandiose legislation like the Illegal Migration Bill, the government could create and adequately fund effective decision-making. Ensuring that refugees have adequate legal advice from the outset and quickly end up in front of a decision-maker would let decisions be made efficiently and fairly. Those with valid claims would stay, and those without deported. But the pragmatism of this is what undoes it. Pragmatic, effective policies don’t raise the salience of an issue, or turn voters into bigots. Lunatic legislation that creates a culture war might.
“Morally right”. That is what Jenrick claimed the Immigration Bill is. It is morally right to deny refuge to some of the most vulnerable people in the world. It is morally right to offload them to “safe countries” like Rwanda. It is morally right to refuse a burden that advanced and wealthy nations have borne throughout human history. Jenrick and Braverman’s racist language of division is the natural progression of the Conservative Party’s longstanding hostility to refugees and to human rights. The Conservative Party knows full well that a humane asylum system is never going to lead to rivers of blood. That doesn’t mean they won’t tell the people that it will.