Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner, has accused Britain of ‘shameful rhetoric’ on immigration. Muiznieks told the Guardian ‘The UK debate has taken a worrying turn as it depicts lower-skilled migrants as dangerous foreigners coming to steal jobs, lower salaries and spoil the health system. ‘
Muizniek was particularly concerned about the way that British politicians and the media have reacted to the prospect of immigration from Bulgaria and Romania, noting how
‘A stigma is put on Bulgarian and Romanian citizens just because of their origin. This is unacceptable because a state cannot treat Bulgarian and Romanian citizens differently from other EU citizens. They need to be treated as everyone else, not on the basis of assumptions or generalisations about their ethnic origin.’
Muizniek is absolutely right, but his warning that British politicians ‘risked feeding stereotypes and hostility towards migrants’ is unlikely to have much moral impact on the British political class or the media. Because the disgustingly xenophobic response to the entirely hypothetical prospect of a migrant ‘invasion’ from Bulgaria and Romania – and the equally repugnant attempts by the Government to pander to it – is not the result of a misunderstanding or a overreaction.
Immersed in a chronic and longterm crisis that our ruling elites cannot solve, and which involves an ever-increasing burden being placed on the British public, it is in the interest of the whole political class to re-emphasize the distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’, ‘native’ and ‘alien’ and to use these distinctions as a basis for the exclusion and persecution of the foreigners who come here to ‘abuse our generosity’ and take ‘ our’ jobs.
The problem is that, after more than two decades of relentlessly dishonest and sensationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric in which words like ‘migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ have become pejorative terms, British society has become so coarsened and hardened, and so accustomed to regarding immigration as a problem, that hardly anyone even blinks an eye as politicians wade ever-deeper into xenophobic slime.
Increasingly bitter and resentful as the consequences of the crisis continue to bite, fearful of a future which offers nothing but pain and ‘austerity’, without the gumption or the wit to challenge the institutions that have created the current crisis, the British public has become passively or directly implicated in a search for scapegoats that is not only restricted to the generic foreigner.
The unemployed, families on benefits, the disabled, or the poor in general – all these categories of people are now routinely depicted, like ‘illegal immigrants’, as scroungers, parasites and serial abusers of an imagined decent and hard-working majority that politicians and the rightwing press pretend to care about.
The result is an escalating dynamic of self-righteous indignation, anger and hatred that is increasingly destroying the values of generosity, empathy, solidarity and tolerance that have also been part of British history.
The medievalist R.I. Moore once invoked the concept of the ‘persecuting society‘ to describe the scapegoating of minorities in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in which lepers, heretics, Jews, ‘sodomites’ and other groups were victimized in various ways. In Moore’s estimation, this period was the beginning of ‘a permanent change in Western society’ in which
‘Persecution became habitual. That is to say not simply that individuals were subjected to violence, but that deliberate and socially sanctioned violence began to be directed, through established governmental, judicial and social institutions, against groups of people defined by general characteristics such as race, religion or way of life, and that membership of such groups in itself came to be regarded as justifying these attacks.’
Today, at a time when Britain’s reaction to its imaginary devils is becoming increasingly vicious, it is worth reminding ourselves that every society has the potential to become a ‘persecuting society’, especially in times of social and economic crisis.
And if we can’t find a way to combat these tendencies, we may all wake up one day to find ourselves living in a very unpleasant country indeed.