Yesterday evening I shared a horrific post on Facebook about a tetraplegic woman whose disability benefits have just been cancelled, and has just been summoned to a job interview by her local job centre. As shocking as it was, this dreadful decision was a fairly typical example of the cruelty and incompetence that has been repeated again and again under the brutal sanctions regime introduced by successive Coalition and Tory governments. Most of the commenters were as outraged as I was, but there were also messages like this:
No shame when it comes to the white British benefits office. Maybe if she was immigrant that’s might of made a differance (sic).
It’s deeply depressing to know that someone took advantage of such an awful tragedy to express such thoughts. Once upon a time I might have written off such comments as a occasional freak intervention from some semi-literate racist nurturing their Nazi memorabilia in some dank basement somewhere. But such interventions are not occasional and they are not from the fringes.
They are all over the place. You can find them, in below-the-line comments sections on any online forum that has anything to do with immigration – or not. When a Frenchwoman living in Kent announced last week that she was leaving the UK because of racism and xenophobia, her comments section was sprinkled with racist and xenophobic comments and jeering invitations to go back home if she didn’t like it.
There is a lot more where that came from, and a lot worse too. Twitter is seething with hatred of this kind, whether directed at foreigners. immigrants, Muslims or people of colour. Diane Abbott gets hundreds if not thousands of such messages everyday. Gina Miller has been threatened with gang rape, lynching and acid attacks simply because she tried to ensure that Parliament had a say in the Brexit negotiations.
What’s happening on social media is also happening on the streets. In July this year the Independent reported that incidents of race and faith-based attacks rose by 23 percent in the eleven months since the referendum – from 40,741 to 49,921. These incidents included acts of physical violence, acid attacks and verbal insults. There are undoubtedly many more, since many victims of verbal attacks don’t go to the police.
What is striking about so many of the incidents that are recorded is that – like the comments and tweets on social media – many of their perpetrators clearly feel emboldened, empowered and legitimized by the referendum result. They feel their time has come, and some of them are clearly dreaming of some kind of ethno-nationalist reckoning in which all the people they don’t like ‘go home’ – even if this country is their home.
Once upon a time some of these people might have felt ashamed to say what they’re thinking; now they don’t. And why should they? When Gina Miller said she might have to leave the country, Arron Banks’s Leave.EU – a mainstream lobbying group – merely laughed and tweeted that it hoped other ‘liberals’ would go with her. Why would people feel any reservation about expressing hostility to immigrants when politicians boast of their ability to turn the UK into a hostile environment? When ‘commentators’ can tweet about ‘final solutions’ and call refugees ‘cockroaches’ and still get a slot on the Jeremy Vine Show? Isn’t it all just free speech?
Every week and sometimes everyday, the Home Office – an institution which currently embodies everything that is most malignant about the British state and society – displays how hostile it is by deporting or threatening to deport another immigrant or group of immigrants.
Meanwhile politicians um and ah, or shake their heads about the public’s ‘concerns’. Some, like the iniquitous and loathsome fraud Boris Johnson, mutter darkly about ‘dual allegiances’. When they’re caught out deporting tens of thousands of students using false language tests, they don’t bat an eyelid. When it’s found that their own estimates of students who ‘overstayed’ their visas are wildly over the mark, they just change the conversation and boast of their ability to keep more people out.
Left-of-centre politicians aren’t always much better. Some talk of the need to exclude immigrants in order to win votes in their constituencies or prevent exploitation or the undercutting of British workers by migrant workers. Others, like the dreadful Frank Field, celebrate the draconian proposals in the Home Office’s outline document for a post-Brexit immigration policy.
Few pause to wonder where all this is leading us. It’s a truism to observe that you only stand a chance of curing yourself of an illness if your illness is actually diagnosed and recognised, and right now we are becoming a sick society – sick with xenophobia, anti-migrant paranoia and unacknowledged racism hidden behind discussions about ‘culture’ and ‘numbers’ and ‘social cohesion.’ We slowly but inexorably poisoning our society with our own fears, prejudices and hatreds. We are becoming mean, vindictive, callous, bitter and aggressive, constantly whining about what immigrants have supposedly done to us without thinking through what we are doing to them – or to ourselves.
Not only are our politicians ignoring and even pandering to these sentiments, but the government is actually instrumentalising the Home Office to act on them and turn them into policy. We didn’t get to this situation overnight, and the referendum is by no means uniquely responsible for it. But there is no doubt that in the last eighteen months, the UK has become a deeply unpleasant and threatening place for many foreigners and immigrants – and for many who simply look or sound foreign – and it may get a lot worse unless we can stop it.
So we need to recognize how serious this is, and we need to act. The tendencies that have been unleashed these last eighteen months do not express the majority sentiments of the population, but too many of those who don’t share them have not condemned them – or have not argued forcefully against the arguments that foreigners and immigrants are responsible for the social problems of 21st century Britain. Such arguments aren’t even restricted to the right – I’m constantly coming across them from sections of the left – albeit wrapped up in a veneer of progressive politics and concern for the working class.
We need really major mobilisations to counter these developments. We need to make the positive case for immigration and diversity and we need to make it loudly. We can’t pretend that we are too British and too intrinsically decent to descend into a racist and xenophobic swamp. We can, because any society can.
We need the famous silent majority to stand up for the kind of society we have begun to build – a society that is comfortable with diversity and open to the world, where foreigners are welcomed, not considered the enemy. We need to push the xenophobes and racists back to the fringes and restore the shame that once forced them to keep their bitterness and rage to themselves.
Because if we can’t do this, then we will be complicit, and we will also be trapped perhaps for decades, by the dangerous forces that have been unleashed, and which will leave few people unscathed if things proceed along their present course.